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Jeffrey's Memorial

Alyce Morris' foundation--named for her son--continues to help children who face early deaths live full lives.


Although there are people who are born crusaders and devote their lives to a cause, Alyce Morris, 66, makes it quite clear that she wasn't one of them. Instead, a crusade was thrust upon her almost 30 years ago, when the former actress and model's 2-year-old son was making no progress toward walking or speaking.

Doctors told the new mom that Jeffrey, adopted after Morris suffered five miscarriages, had multiple ailments, including muscular dystrophy--a disease in which the muscles atrophy until they can no longer support essential organs, killing the victim.

To make it worse, Morris soon learned that few services were available to ensure that Jeffrey's shortened life could be lived to the fullest.

Her crusade would one day be named for the child who died before he reached 17. The nonprofit Jeffrey Foundation, which offers therapy and recreational programs to more than 100 children through age 18 with severe or multiple disabilities, will celebrate its 25th anniversary in March.

"I would have loved to have a center like this when Jeff was alive," Morris said.

Morris was living in Chicago when she learned of her son's illnesses, which included neurological problems and mental retardation. When Jeffrey was 5, she gave up her budding career and crumbling marriage and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to give Jeffrey a better life.

"I wasn't going to put him in a home," Morris said, noting that in the late 1960s and early '70s there were few other options. "I began to think of what I could do."

She began by using hospitals and disabled children's groups to find other parents equally desperate to improve the lot of their children and create a support network. Then she found sponsors.

"I just called everyone and asked. I said my son needs this and there are so many children like him and we need your help," Morris said.

For her first parents meeting, attended by about 40 people, Morris begged to use the conference room of a Beverly Hills bank.

"I dropped the coffeepot all over the floor, brown water everywhere," Morris recalled. "I was so nervous, I thought, 'What am I doing, I have all these people here!' "

By the next meeting, more than 100 attendees and expert speakers showed up.

Morris found volunteers through local universities and volunteer centers, eventually recruiting four times more helpers than children.

In 1972, with 25 severely disabled children and 100 volunteer nurses, social workers, student teachers and college students, Morris organized a camp, complete with field trips, arts and crafts lessons, and music time.

Many of the parents gathered when their children met--eager to interact with other adults and share stories with parents who would appreciate their difficulties.

The Junior Arts Center in Hollywood lent them space. An arts store donated crafts supplies. "It was wonderful," Morris said. "Everyone was very kind to us."

More sponsors followed, and Morris started a fund-raising arm, learning to write grants, solicit corporate donations and develop a list of supporters.

With 56 children, the group opened a preschool, a day school, an after-school program and an adults group. Later, they opened a fully staffed group home.

"Our goal always has been to prevent the institutionalization of any child and create a normalized home," Morris said.

Then, in 1980, 16-year-old Jeffrey Morris died of pneumonia. "He died smiling," Morris said. "He held my hand like he knew I was there. I kept saying, 'I love you, I love you,' and that was it."

That afternoon, Morris returned to the center to bring the sad news to those children who could understand. And she decided that the best way to mourn her son was to continue the project that made his life livable.

"I honestly felt that it was so important for the children and parents to have a place," Morris said. "I was working out my own grief, my own frustration. I found something that I really believed in, and I just kept on going."

Today, the foundation is in the process of buying the two Mid-Wilshire area buildings it occupies and has a paid staff of 38--including 20 who work full time. More than 120 volunteers come in for events including their newest program for drug-addicted infants.

Now that children with severe disabilities are educated within the Los Angeles school system, Morris focuses on supplemental programs, such as infant intervention, toddler groups, summer camps, counseling, and preschool and after-school programs.

Margaret Bush, 53, has been a foster mother to four drug-exposed children who have relied on programs at the Jeffrey Foundation.

"Alyce has been an inspiration to me," Bush said. "She's a caring person, she's a loving person, and she's a hard-working person."

Morris' current dream is to bring a Jeffrey Foundation to other cities. "I'm so glad I didn't give up when Jeff died," Morris said. "Now it's all in his memory."


The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on the Jeffrey Foundation, a nonprofit center that helps multi-handicapped children and their parents with a host of educational and social programs. For more information, call (213) 965-7536.

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