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Valleywide Focus

Milken Hosts 1st of Events to Benefit Youths

October 01, 1994|JEFF SCHNAUFER

Before leaving to serve time in federal prison, former junk-bond king Michael Milken's last stop was a treatment center for disadvantaged children in Sherman Oaks. During the 22 months he served, he called there once a week, collect, to talk to the children.

When he was released, he visited the center before heading home.

"I never abandoned those kids, even when I was away," Milken said of the youths at the Sherman Oaks H.E.L.P. Group facility.

Milken's foundation is a major contributor to the nonprofit center. Since being released from prison in 1993, Milken has visited the children here at least once a week.

In 1990, Milken was sentenced to a two-year prison term and $600 million in fines and restitution for securities fraud.

On Friday he was at the center to kick off the Milken Family Foundation Festival For Youth, a series of nine events in Los Angeles, New York and Washington benefiting more than 4,000 youths.

At the Sherman Oaks event, approximately 500 disabled, abused and disadvantaged children roamed through game booths, interactive computer labs and dozens of other play areas. Meanwhile, storytellers, jugglers and magicians entertained at nearly every corner of this facility, which was founded to provide treatment, counseling and shelter for children with special needs.

One reporter at the event asked Milken if his history as a lawbreaker precluded him from being a role model for youth.

"No," he replied. "Kids know you for who you are, not what others write about you."

But at least one of the kids seemed aware of his past.

In the math lab--which is called "Mike's Math Club" in recognition of Milken's interest in and funding of math education--a 14-year-old victim of emotional abuse approached him with suspicion in her eyes.

"So you're Michael Milken?" she asked in an accusatory voice.

Milken did not flinch. He turned the situation around.

"Yes," he replied. Then he quickly challenged her to a math game called 24. Within minutes, the two were smiling at each other, her winning the first game, him the second.

"We're going to have to come back for a rematch," Milken said.

Most H.E.L.P. clients did not need to be won over.

"I know him for what he has done for me," said Barbara, 24, a physically abused woman who has been treated at the Sherman Oaks site since she was 16. "When I first came here, I was afraid to join his math class," she said, referring to a class Milken has occasionally taught over the years.

"I had low self-esteem," she said. "But he said I'd do fine. And I gave it a try and felt more comfortable with myself."

Milken was clearly enjoying himself, blowing bubbles from a dinosaur-shaped soap wand and hugging kids. "Hey! How are you?" he cried to one youth, giving him a bear hug.

The boy eagerly offered Milken a glance into his prize bag. "Wow," Milken said. "You've already got a prize and it's early."

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