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GIVING / Henry Winkler: Ayyyyyy! Fonzie Says Volunteering's
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He Works to Create Happy Days for Kids

November 17, 1998|HENRY WINKLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The future of our city, our state and our country rests in very little hands.

It is amazing to me that we, the greatest country in the world, are so disrespectful to our children.

My wife, Stacey, and I had worked with children at risk for several years here in Los Angeles when the idea was born to create an organization that would use the best talents of our industry to meet the needs of the children of our country.

The Children's Action Network was founded in the back dining room of an Italian restaurant on 26th Street, right here in L.A., that no longer exists. It was founded appropriately enough by families with children. Families who were fortunate enough to be able to give their kids what they needed in order to become caring, functioning, productive citizens . . . yet, at the same time, understood and felt the need to give the same support to the children in our community who, for whatever reason, would not have the same opportunities.

We knew there was no better way to reach and motivate the public to work on behalf of children than through television and the movie theaters.

Early in the run of "Happy Days," the Fonz and Richie went to the local library to meet some girls. During the episode, the Fonz took out a library card. As a result of that simple gesture, registration for library cards went up 500% around the country.

It became clear to us that we could turn that kind of influence into something positive for children. Our vocations enabled us to be the perfect advocates.

How does Children's Action Network work? Simple. We all go to writers and producers and suggest guidelines on children's issues that they can incorporate into prime-time shows. We suggest guidelines for educational children's television programs. We undertook a national campaign to make sure that kids across the country were immunized.

When the network started, America was facing a measles epidemic. Children were needlessly dying from a preventable disease. At our first meeting, we were astounded to learn that a child in Cuba or Colombia had a better chance of being immunized than children in the USA.

So Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg, Bob Daly, Lorraine and Sid Sheinberg, Nancy Daly, Lezlie and Mark Johnson, Diana Meehan and Gary Goldberg, and Stacey and I traveled to Washington, D.C., to launch the network's immunization campaign with then Surgeon General Antonia Novella.

We asked our friends Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Smits and Bill Cosby to appear in public service announcements urging parents to get their babies immunized. We asked the studios to give us facilities. We asked our friend Bob Zemeckis to direct the PSAs. We asked the movie theaters and TV networks to air them. We asked drug companies and pediatricians to help build coalitions everywhere to make sure parents were having their kids immunized.

And the wonderful thing was, everyone said yes!

As a result, 200,000 kids were immunized for free, with the coalition still hard at work.

Emboldened by our success, we turned our attention to another nationally devastating problem: childhood hunger. There are 12 million hungry children in America; 500,000 of them are right here in Los Angeles.

How can our children grow, concentrate and learn if they are always hungry, always fantasizing about a meal? Our children's futures are built on a foundation of food.

And that brings me to our Kids Cafes, the network's partnership with Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. The goal of the Kids Cafes is to provide free, wholesome meals for hungry children in a warm and safe environment, with some tutoring thrown in.

My most difficult task so far was standing between 100 children and a stunning feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, carrots, stuffing and dessert at the kickoff of our second Kids Cafe last November at the Boys & Girls Club in Venice. But my view was great, 100 eager little faces waiting for me to stop talking so they could eat, all while feeling cared for and remembered. Fortunately, I had powerful company with me--Kim Delaney, Christine Lahti, Kate Capshaw, Rhea Perlman.

Last November I helped serve the kids a meal. This month, I'll be reading stories at the Kids Cafe as part of our new program. We want to encourage the kids to read for fun; so once a month, we serve a special meal and we ask our celebrity friends to read their favorite book. We create a delicious party to celebrate reading.

There are now two Los Angeles Kids Cafes in operation, providing more than 400 meals every week, or more than 20,000 every year. We hope to add two more next year and two more the year after that. We won't stop until every child in Los Angeles goes to bed with a full stomach.

What issue will we tackle next? Adoption. Finding nurturing, safe homes for kids who don't have one. We'll keep you posted.

I'll keep asking my friends and speaking out to my neighbors until we've taken care of our children. In the nonprofit industry, your voice is never silent; you waste no opportunity, your hand is always out, hopefully, filling those little hands with a future.

*

Henry Winkler can be seen in the film "The Waterboy," co-starring Adam Sandler and Kathy Bates. He also is executive producer of "The Deadman's Gun," airing on Showtime, and "So Weird," airing on the Disney Channel.

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