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Runners Spring Into Action for Girl, Family : Support: Jessica Wendrick, who was homeless while training for the L.A. Marathon, has been swamped with gifts. She, her mother and sisters now have an apartment.

March 14, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fourteen-year-old Jessica Wendrick didn't win any prizes at the Los Angeles Marathon last Sunday. She didn't even finish the race.

But the fact that a girl who spent most of the last year homeless--some of it living in a station wagon--even attempted the grueling event has brought forth an outpouring of support from runners and non-runners alike.

"It just got to me that this little girl who was so down and out had so much drive to want to succeed," said Topanga resident Julia Shugerman, one of the many people who read about Jessica in The Times and called to offer help.

"It really hit home to me that this little girl who wears Coke-bottle glasses and handout clothes would try so hard," Shugerman said.

Jessica's mother, Linda Wendrick, said her family has nearly been overwhelmed by the offers from strangers.

Wendrick, Jessica and her three sisters are now living in a one-bedroom apartment in a subsidized housing complex in Northridge. Until last week they had almost no furniture and were sleeping on the floor. But a few days after the race they already had received several hundred dollars, a sofa bed and promises of household appliances, including five offers for refrigerators.

"Every time I turn around it seems I have another call!" Wendrick said with a laugh, speaking from a pay telephone near the apartment. She has a beeper, which she got when the family was living in the car.

"People have offered us beds, clothes, refrigerators, lamps, canned goods, shoes," she said. "One woman said her Girl Scout troop was going to make us their project and help us out.

"It's just unbelievable."

One runner who won a gift certificate for a jacket at a recent 10K race sent it anonymously to Jessica. "It would mean more to me for her to have it," the woman wrote in a letter.

Businesses also contributed. A representative of Nike in Beaverton, Ore., called to arrange for Jessica to get running outfits and for the entire family to receive shoes. An optometrist with Southland Opticians in Studio City arranged for Jessica and her mother to get eye exams and new glasses.

"I think people were touched," said Sandra Jones, a legal secretary and Los Angeles Police Department reserve officer, ". . . because this little girl was struggling to stay in school and get an education."

That is one area where Jessica's newfound fame did not help.

"It was a little embarrassing to have people reading all that," said the soft-spoken Jessica, speaking from a friend's apartment. She is a ninth-grader at Bravo Medical Magnet School in Boyle Heights but had not been to school since the marathon.

For a couple of days she was feeling worn out from the race, where she dropped out at mile 18 because of the heat. Other days she did not get ready in time to catch the bus for the hourlong ride to school.

"I know we have to try harder to get her there," Wendrick said.

Otherwise, Jessica shared in the excitement of the windfall for the family. "The sofa bed is really cool," she said. "And I can't believe I'm going to get stuff from Nike. I didn't expect anything like that."

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