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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : From the Pain, a Passion : James and Nancy Chuda lost their little girl to a rare cancer. Now they are on a mission to protect other children.

November 20, 1994|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

When a child dies, the mourners talk about how a short life is purposeful--how even the very young can complete a mission on Earth.

This belief, embraced during the memorial service for their little girl on April 24, 1991, steers the lives of James and Nancy Chuda.

The remembrance was held in the stunning, sunlight-bathed house that Jim, a well-known environmental architect, built four years ago for his family in Laurel Canyon. Colette, who died of cancer at 5, had lived there only a short while, playing among the rose bushes and dreaming the dreams of a little girl.

That spring day, lying "like a princess," Nancy says, in her bedroom and surrounded by roses and her loved ones, the child was gone but the mission had begun. With the Chudas' approval, a friend passed out elegant handwritten notes announcing the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund.

The Chudas' close friend and neighbor, Marcy Hamilton, had come running down the hill the morning after Colette died, Nancy recalls. "She said, 'Nancy, Colette's favorite color was green. She loved the park. She loved nature. Why don't you start an environmental fund?' Of course, I was just trying to survive the tragedy, and I said, 'Oh, Marcy, it's a good idea.' But I was in a fog."

More than three years later, the Chudas' hearts are still leaden but their minds have cleared. And their resolve has grown exponentially. The couple suspect that Colette's cancer, a rare form called Wilms' tumor, was caused by some unknown toxic exposure, either in the womb or during infancy. Unlike other cancers, Wilms' tumor has no known genetic cause.

The tragedy turned their long-held environmentalism from a concern to a passion, from a devotion to a calling. And, with the help of other parents--some of them entertainment business megastars--the Chudas are earning the respect of environmental activists and lawmakers.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a powerful nonprofit environmental group, released a report saying that the typical American child is not only exposed to many chemicals known to cause cancer but also may be more vulnerable to those exposures than adults. Yet government standards regulating carcinogens take into account neither multiple exposures nor children's rapid growth and development, which make them more vulnerable to toxins.

The report, "Handle With Care: Children and Environmental Carcinogens," was funded by the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund and is dedicated to her memory.

"Children have to be considered separately in environmental regulations, with their own standards for tolerance," Nancy says. "Until we can define and declare those differences, and begin to regard children as special, we won't see change. That is the driving force behind this report and behind us."

In the often arcane and dry technical world of environmental science, the Chudas humanize bland data, says Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

"We have got to begin to personalize--as the Chudas are able to do--issues that have been reduced to statistics by lawmakers," Feldman says. "I can't think of two better people to do this.

"Every time they have to give their perspective--to say what moved them--they have to present the tragic facts and relive, to some extent, (their) pain. Yet Jim and Nancy are willing to put themselves through that to prevent future harm for others."

*

It's a brisk October morning, two days after the release of the NRDC report. Jim and Nancy, along with her cousin, public relations professional Betty Ann Gaynor, frantically work the phones, trying to squeeze into the lineup of a Larry King show about the report.

Their prospects look dim, and Gaynor cautions against high hopes. But Nancy, a former broadcaster who worked for KABC in the early '80s, has contacts. And within a few hours Jim and Nancy are in a Sunset Boulevard studio telling King, via satellite, about Colette and the environmental fund.

"Why am I surprised?" asks Gaynor, who has flown in from Florida to help publicize the report. "Nancy and Jim are guided by this inner sense of what is right and good, and what can come to pass. They are also articulate and magnetic. They can communicate that, 'This is where our priorities need to be.' "

It seems as if Nancy, a Los Angeles native, was born to attract positive attention. At 47, she is a slender beauty often praised for her optimism and generosity. Her mother, Lenore Breslauer, co-founded the anti-war citizens' group Another Mother for Peace. Her father, Broadway producer David Gould, died when Nancy was 12. Her stepfather, entertainment business manager Gerald Breslauer, introduced Nancy to her best friend and soul mate in environmental causes, Olivia Newton-John.

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