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LOCAL HERO

To Juvenile Cancer Patients, She's an Angel

December 18, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Matti Contopulos is recalling a 3-year-old girl she met in a hospital playroom, who had lost her eyes after two brain cancer surgeries, but was joking about it. "I thought," Contopulos says, "If she can laugh about that, then I'd better be doing something more."

Contopulos was already doing a lot as the founder of the Children's Cancer Research Fund (CCRF), a West Los Angeles nonprofit organization that she formed in 1987 to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

The fund is one of two inspirations Contopulos had that year, when she was working at creating and directing art activity programs for cancer patients of all ages at local hospitals. Contopulos wanted to do something to make the medical environment more warm and comforting for kids. She approached the Walt Disney Co. with the idea of putting Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other beloved characters on children's hospital gowns and pajamas.

Obtaining permission, she struck a deal with a hospital garment manufacturer, and used the royalties to create the CCRF. When the Disney license expired in 1990, she contacted Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny and friends now grace lab coats and patient garb nationwide and have been seen on television's "ER."

Since establishing the CCRF, Contopulos, 49, has conceived a number of fund-raising activities for its benefit. In 1991, when the Los Angeles Kings chose the fund to be beneficiary of a team charity event, she suggested staging a large-scale carnival at Santa Monica Airport and recruited players to pose with young cancer patients for the invitation cover.

The event raised $260,000, more than twice the total made by the Kings' event the previous year. For the next three years, the CCRF ran its own All Star Sports Carnival.

Last year, Contopulos established the first Century City 4 Kids Tree of Life and Festival of Lights, held again Dec. 5. The free music and dance festival, funded by corporate and private donations, collects toys for hospital patients.

"I don't do black-tie dinners," says Contopulos, who recruits her attorney husband, Steve, their 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, and 15-year-old son, Chris, to help out whenever possible. "I am a firm believer that cancer does not strike just the wealthy. I want everybody at all economic levels to participate in the fun, and to know that if all they have is $1, it's just as important [a contribution] as $1,000."

Contopulos makes sure the kids themselves are involved, handing them the most sought-after jobs such as looking after celebrities at events. "I think it's so important that they are not outcasts," she says. "They're capable of having fun. They're normal human beings."

Contopulos comes by her empathy with good reason. When she was an 8-year-old in Scarsdale, N.Y., her mother was found to have breast cancer. "No one talked about it--I just remember saying prayers in temple and my dad crying," she says. "As an adult, what has always sat with me is how alone one must be, going through it--there were no support groups then, friends didn't talk about it. I guess I picked up then on the people backing away."

Her mother has survived subsequent cancer bouts.

Since its inception, the CCRF has funded 24 grants, providing seed money to help young researchers get their projects out of the lab and into clinical trials, a crucial but under-funded first step in the research process. One leukemia breakthrough was cited in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. The CCRF has also funded a playroom at the Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House, a play therapy assistant position at UCLA Medical Center and a summer school program for young UC San Diego Medical Center patients.

"Matti is an amazing person as far as the ideas she comes up with," says Dr. Stuart E. Siegel, vice chairman of the department of pediatrics at USC School of Medicine, head of the hematology-oncology division at Childrens Hospital and chairman of CCRF's national medical advisory board. "I see her at events, or in the playroom, and she radiates positive energy. The kids can read that and respond to it. She can get them motivated to do just about anything. That same energy is what characterizes her involvement with different projects."

One such child was Jonathan De Young of Covina, who was 8 in 1993 when Contopulos made it possible for him to be a California Angels bat boy for a day and to ride on a Hollywood Christmas Parade float. He died the next year. Says his mother, Dody, "He and Matti clicked. She's such a warm person. That she still remembers us and is involved with us after we lost Jonathan is remarkable."

Perhaps the most poignant testament to Contopulos comes from Jonathan himself. At his request, he was buried in his Angels uniform.

* 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, CA 90053.

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