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ANN CONWAY

Casita Supporters Do It for the Kids

July 28, 1993|ANN CONWAY

Ask Phil O'Brien why he volunteers for Casita de San Jose and you'll get a pointed reply: "I was abused as a kid," he said on Saturday night at "An Evening of Country" in Irvine's Bommer Canyon.

The event benefited the Little House of St. Joseph--actually a group of homes (three in Santa Ana, one in Orange) that offers battered children medical care and housing.

O'Brien taught 150 guests how to line dance at the benefit.

Sporting his best Western get-up, the tall Irishman took a break under a canopy of giant oaks to speak candidly about his childhood: "I grew up in Ireland during World War II, and abuse was just an accepted thing in those days.

"My father beat me and my mother. Any excuse would do--I was in his way or I didn't pick up something. I really don't think he knew any better. He went to work when he was 10 years old and was abused by the people there. I guess my abuse was part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He's dead now, but I still feel the anger."

A father of five, O'Brien knows about the challenges of raising children, the struggle to be patient, keep your cool. "I have a fairly healthy temper, but I recognize the problem," he said. "I know it's not right to beat kids."

Sister Marie Jeannette, who founded Casita de San Jose in 1987, knows it too. But she was encouraged to ignore the problem when she was a young teacher in San Diego.

"When I first became acquainted with the fact that there were abused school children, I went to people in authority and asked them what to do.

"They told me I shouldn't get involved; a nun shouldn't involve herself with the seamy side of life, they said.

"That made me angry. Later, I spoke with a child psychologist who told me I'd better get involved."

She did a two-year internship with abused children to see if she had the "emotional stamina" to deal with the problem on a regular basis. Eventually, she ran a Tucson facility that housed 80 abused kids, ages 3 to 12.

It was tough. Very tough. And even today, Sister Marie Jeannette--who belongs to the order of St. Joseph of Orange--finds it hard to talk about the children without her eyes filling up.

She talks about a 4-year-old who was so depressed he tried to commit suicide, a 6-year-old who is on a suicide watch.

"Child abuse is a national ill," said Sister Marie Jeannette. "And it's one that strikes rich and poor children alike.

"These children have their childhoods stolen from them. They find it very hard to trust people, to relate. If they don't get help, they grow up to be adults who can't form relationships."

Guests paid $75 each to dine on barbecued center-cut New York steaks, swordfish and chicken. They danced to the country sounds of the Justice band.

Linda Hirschman, event chairwoman, estimated proceeds at more than $20,000.

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