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Ex-Pornography Star Takes Up Battle to Aid Runaway Teens

August 19, 1993|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOLLYWOOD — When Lisa Marie Abato, the youngest of five daughters from a strict Italian Catholic family, arrived in Hollywood from Long Island in 1985, the 18-year-old wanted two things: to become a disc jockey and to leave behind the physical and emotional abuse that short-circuited her upbringing.

She accomplished neither. After several low-income years of waiting tables, Abato became "Holly Ryder," a performer in more than 200 pornographic films. And she says she simply traded the abuse she'd suffered at home for a different, more public kind of injury.

"My videos are out there and they'll be out there forever," said a bitter Abato, who last year quit the adult film industry and resolved to make her experiences amount to something more meaningful than bad memories.

The result is the recently formed Holly Ryder Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to intervene in the lives of street youths. Based partly in Hollywood, the destination of choice among many of the nation's estimated 200,000 runaways, the foundation last month unveiled plans for a pilot program that would provide 40 runaways between 16 and 23 years old with money, career counseling and housing.

"I'm using the experiences I've had to help people not have these experiences in the future," said Abato, adding that she gave the organization her adult-film moniker so that she would not forget her past. "I was led in just as many are led in. I want to give them hope that they can change."

Those who provide services to area runaways say the foundation's program is an ambitious but much-needed one. Mostly, the help that exists for Los Angeles County's 10,000 to 20,000 homeless youths comes in the form of food, shelter and medical treatment, with only a few organizations, notably the Los Angeles Free Clinic and Covenant House California, providing employment and education counseling.

"What they want to do makes a lot of sense," said Joan Thirkettle, executive director of the Salvation Army's Way In program. "That is a service gap in the system for runaways." Added Elizabeth Gomez, executive director of the Los Angeles Youth Network: "No one has tackled the career-counseling piece of this."

As little as 18 months ago, Abato herself was struggling with the same problems facing the runaways who drift into Southern California's sex industry. While working as a waitress in Beverly Hills, and trying to resist a return to the quick money of the pornographic film industry, Abato met John Fitzpatrick, 29, an inventor and a fund-raising consultant who had several years' experience in raising money for United Way member organizations. With his help, Abato said, she was able to extricate herself from the world of triple-X-rated movies. It was her low self-esteem, combined with a feeling that she could do nothing else, that made opting out difficult.

"The allure of the industry is amazing," said Abato, who is now living off savings while studying to be a stockbroker. "There's a lot of money and fame attached to the industry. You become acculturated to the lifestyle and it's very hard to get out of it."

It was also in collaboration with Fitzpatrick that Abato decided to launch the foundation and focus its intentions on providing employment for runaways. Its first effort, a six-month pilot study, is scheduled to begin in January under the administration of UCLA education professor Charles Healy and will attempt to assess the effectiveness of providing career and educational counseling to homeless youths.

According to plan outlines, the study will select 40 runaways through a Hollywood outreach program and separate them into two groups. One group will receive a cash stipend from the foundation, while the other will be given career guidance and counseling services such as aptitude tests and placement in apprenticeship and internship positions, in addition to money and housing. Trust funds also will be set up for the group and be paid out upon project completion. The hope is that the runaways who get these services will be able to carve out lives in the mainstream and leave behind their street existence.

Wayne Hinrichs, a veteran social worker who will head the foundation, said the approach is one that should have been tried years ago. "There's nothing going on that lowers the numbers (of runaways)," he said. "We're developing a program to get youths off the street, not helping them live on the streets. . . . The kids can't escape on their own. There has to be intervention."

Though they have not done any fund-raising, Fitzpatrick and Abato said they will have enough money--about $125,000--to underwrite the program for at least six months. Fitzpatrick, who last year founded an Oregon-based company that manufactures mechanical battery systems, said he plans to take his company public and contribute some of the stock-sale proceeds to the foundation.

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