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LOCAL HERO

Helping Others Moves Her Forward

November 16, 1995|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Christmas time in 1993, Judith Baker found herself in danger of losing the home she shares with her 16-year-old daughter. A two-year series of crises included her mother's sudden death from a brain tumor and her own diagnosis of breast cancer. Recession threatened her public relations consulting business. Ultimately, she was able to hang on to her house, but in those dark months of uncertainty, she made a decision.

Having experienced the type of downward spiral that could lead to homelessness, she visited the Los Angeles Mission and offered to volunteer at the City Light Women's Outreach Program, a rehabilitation program housed at the Mission's Anne Douglas Center.

"I was so depressed. I needed some positive energy to go forward," Baker says now. "I felt that the only way to come back from the bottom was to help others."

And help she has. A month after she volunteered at City Light, still in bandages following reconstructive surgery, Baker was hired by the Chorus Line apparel manufacturing company in Vernon as its director of public relations and advertising. And in September, 1994, through Baker's efforts, Chorus Line hired its first graduate of the City Light program, with Baker serving as the woman's mentor to ease the transition from mission life to the corporate world. The company hired a second graduate in May, mentored by another Chorus Line employee.

"These women get rehabilitated from drugs and alcohol, and then no one wants them," says Baker, 45. "It just defeats the whole purpose and deflates the women's self-esteem. These women really want the job. They'll take two buses to get there. Most of the women I've talked to absolutely do not want to be on welfare."

The first City Light alumna hired by the company was 33-year-old Brenda Vannoy, who works in the trim department. "I'm like a Big Sister to her," Baker says. "If she has any problem, she can call me at home or work. The corporate environment is completely different than the streets or the rehab program. We've discussed that. I haven't had any problems, but she knows that she's had to commit to me, too. If she blows it, she's out of there."

Baker provided Vannoy an orientation wardrobe of 10 work outfits. Thirteen months after beginning work, Vannoy still receives partial welfare assistance but can afford her own housing in Paramount and has seen the return of four of her five children from foster care.

"They are 100% on your side," says Vannoy, a former drug user, of the company.

Hiring Vannoy and fellow City Light graduate Sharon Drawn, who works in the catalogue department, has "worked out very, very well," says Chorus Line Chairman and CEO Barry Sacks. "Obviously, a good employee is hard to find, and they really want to work. We're happy we're able to help people who need it. Everybody deserves a second chance."

Baker's involvement with Mission women goes beyond the workplace. At her behest, Chorus Line donates garments to the Mission, contributing 4,800 last year. This month she is holding business etiquette classes there.

Baker, who last month opened her own marketing offices in Hollywood while retaining Chorus Line as a client, now has a mission of her own: to convince other businesses to follow the company's lead.

"No one has a clear idea of how to rectify the welfare situation in this country," she says. "I feel that if medium to large-size companies would hire one rehabilitated woman with children and pay her more than minimum wage, we could get mothers off welfare and children out of foster homes."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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