BREA — Seven years ago, Monica McEntee met a little boy who changed her life.
The 12-year-old had no money to buy school supplies so McEntee invited him to go on a shopping spree. She offered him any toy he desired. But the only thing he wanted, she recalled with a tear, was a pair of new underwear.
"Suddenly I realized that some kids have to face such a harsh reality that they have no time for fantasy," said the mother of three from Brea.
This is fantasy time for McEntee.
Not satisfied with the food and everyday clothing she used to donate to children's shelters, McEntee each Halloween for five years has decked out homeless and needy children at a different shelter or group home across the county. She scours yard sales and thrift shops all year long, searching for a sparkling roll of gold lame fabric for a ballerina's tutu or a frayed bandanna for a cowboy get-up.
To make as many as 100 costumes, a vast network of her friends and neighbors donate everything from used soccer uniforms and plastic hangers to intricately woven angel's wings for an emerald green Tinkerbell costume and silver sparklers for a baby Elvis jacket.
One friend recently mailed a five-pound package of pine cones for a forest-motif "I'm a nut" costume McEntee had planned.
"I was at a garage sale a few months ago and I got really excited because I found these tomato slippers," she said, waving the fuzzy red shoe as she spoke.
"The owners must have thought I was crazy but I was thinking 'I'm going to make some little kid a tomato.' "
While many people volunteer for needy children at Thanksgiving and Christmas, few remember Halloween, she says.
"It's great to give food and clothes, but kids need a lot more than that," said McEntee, 36. "Halloween is their day. A day to feed their imaginations."
After tucking her children Melissa, 8, and Johnny, 5, into bed at night, McEntee heads for her rumpus room to make costumes from rags.
Magic wands, pompons and yards of shiny fabric spill out of every corner of her otherwise tidy house. Armed with her trusty glue gun, she is transformed from self-described humdrum mom to costume designer gone mad.
McEntee, who once worked for a designer, has loved to sew ever since her doting Italian grandmother taught her how. Growing up in a cash-strapped family of seven in Brooklyn, she learned how to make something out of nothing.
"We always used what we had. Old mops for hair and pillow cases for trick-or-treat bags," she recalled.
Her grandmother sat up many a night with her creating dresses and pinafores for McEntee's beloved Barbie doll. On those evenings, McEntee said, she learned more than just how to sew, she learned how to live.
"My grandmother made Mother Teresa look like the devil. She always had time for us kids, she never complained and she had an unshakable faith in angels," said McEntee, brushing back a lock of coal black hair from her green eyes.
McEntee always wears her grandmother's silver wedding band. And she is rarely found without a delicate silver angel locket hanging from her neck. These symbols remind her, she said, of her philosophy: Nothing is impossible and one person can change the world.
"When you're down and out, sometimes the only thing that can get you through is hope," she said. "I know there are people who say the homeless are lazy and on drugs. But that's not true. It only takes a few mishaps and we could all be there."
About 5,000 of the county's 12,000 to 15,000 homeless people younger than 18, according to the Social Services Agency.
This year, McEntee called Child or Parental Emergency Services in Santa Ana to offer her costumes. Kelly Deaube, manager of the facility that houses 24 children ages 1 to 13, said they would be delighted to accept.
"This is the first time in many years that we'll have new costumes," Deaube said. "The holidays are a very difficult time for our kids."
All the children in her care were removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse, Deaube said. In the future, they will either be sent back home, into foster care or to adoptive parents. "These kids are facing a lot of changes and so we try to make this as close to a home as we can," she said.
The Orangewood Children's Home, where 250 children ages 1 to 17 live, received 85 of McEntee's creations last year. Because the children, who have been removed from their homes, are not allowed to leave the premises to go trick-or-treating, they miss out on some of holiday's revelry.
That makes the costumes all the more special, said Rose Carey, who works at the Orange home. They wouldn't be able to celebrate Halloween at all without donations like McEntee's, she said.
McEntee refuses to accept any thanks for her efforts. She said she can't even bear to see the children's faces when they tear into their regalia. So she has someone drop off the costumes a few days before Halloween.