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Homecoming Day With the Emphasis on Home : Education: The ritual gives the residence facility's youths--all taken from abusive or negligent parents--a sense of normalcy.

November 20, 1994|L.D. STRAUB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTH HILLS — The Bulldogs wore matching navy tank tops pulled over sweat shirts and tees, yellow touch-football strips hanging from each hip. And the royal court sparkled in rhinestone tiaras worn over backward baseball caps.

The big game, the homemade-float parade and the crowning of student royalty is a scene common at virtually every high school this time of year, when the ritual of homecoming calls back alumni and invites current students to campuses for a day of revelry and reminiscing.

But homecoming day for the Bulldogs of Penny Lane, a North Hills residence facility and school for youths from troubled and abusive homes, took on a special meaning. These are kids who have never really had a hometown school, kids who don't have much in their past that calls for celebration.

"This is really amazing, that it's actually coming. Our first Homecoming," said Sam, a 16-year-old resident of Penny Lane. "Sometimes I didn't believe it would happen. It's really hard to get people's spirits up in here because they are always thinking, you know, about their lives."

Residents at Penny Lane, officially named The National Foundation for the Treatment of the Emotionally Handicapped, cares for 110 teen-agers who have been taken away from abusive or negligent parents by the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services, the Department of Mental Health and an order from juvenile court. Their full names are not used because they are minors and wards of the state.

"When I first got here I was drowning depressed. And some girls have been here for four years," said Danielle, co-captain of the drill team and a nine-month Penny Lane resident. "We've never had anything like this. It's almost like we are at a real school, like we can do things normal kids can do too."

According to Denise, who will graduate in June from Penny Lane's private high school, New Directions, the homecoming festivities represent more than just a good time.

"The system makes us feel like we must have done something wrong," Denise said. "And the way homecoming is so formal--you've gotta get the hair, the nails. You get all dressed up and you feel so good about yourself. It kinda gives you hope. Even though it's just for one night and all, you can look in the mirror and say, 'I can be somebody just like anybody else.' "

Most of the girls borrowed dresses from staff members. A Penny Lane alumna now in cosmetology school treated each of the girls to a set of acrylic nails. The activities director and drill-team coach styled hair.

For Ive Markovits, executive director of Penny Lane, watching the day unfold smoothly was more than she had hoped for.

"We deal with kids at the end of the continuum," she said. "To see them approximate what normal kids would be doing is so exciting for me."

The irony of a homecoming day for teen-agers who lack what most would consider a home has not escaped some of the staff members.

But as Mark Hennessy, a teacher at New Directions, pointed out: "The reality is, for a lot of these kids, Penny Lane is the best home they have ever had. To see them smile and laugh . . ., " Hennessy said, pausing and surveying the crowd. "If they didn't have this now, they would never have one."

There is at least one change that Mickey McKinney, Penny Lane alumna, class of '84, now a senior at UC Santa Barbara, is glad to see.

"I missed things like homecoming and prom when I was young," McKinney said. "I missed establishing those positive memories. Hopefully, those are not parts of growing up that these kids will have to miss."

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