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Pier Counseling Works Wonders

Children from foster homes and shelters have a day of fun with volunteers, some of whom agree to give more time.

November 11, 2002|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

They ate cotton candy and squealed in terror on the Sea Dragon and the West Coaster. They had their faces painted with dolphins and angels. And they gamely begged autographs from the Backstreet Boys and other heart-throb celebrities.

For the more than 1,300 children who ran themselves ragged Sunday at the Santa Monica Pier, the day of pampering orchestrated by a Sherman Oaks-based nonprofit organization offered a chance at something simple: just to be a kid.

All came from foster homes or shelters for the homeless. Behind each grinning face were stories of broken homes and abuses that no child should suffer. But on Sunday, what mattered most were concerns like 12-year-old Raylene's: "Should I try to win the Scooby-Doo or the giant dragon?" Raylene was enjoying the day with a friend from her La Puente group home -- 12-year-old Nadila. (The girls' last names are not being used to protect their identities.)

The event, which closed the pier's rides and restaurants to the general public for much of the day, paired children ages 6 to 14 with adult mentors.

For the first time, this year's fourth annual "Day of the Child," organized by Children Uniting Nations, also secured longer-term commitments from volunteers willing to remain a presence in the lives of their charges or to help other foster children. The possibilities range from monthly visits and academic tutoring to adoption.

"It opens the public up to the fact that these kids need other people in their lives," said Valerie Fitzgerald, 48, a Brentwood real estate broker who sits on the organization's board of directors and served as mentor to Raylene and Nadila.

Working with more than a thousand children entrenched in the county bureaucracy is not easy.

Legal logistics were among the challenges. To allow media to photograph Sunday's events, the group had to obtain a court order. Some kids sported coding on their name badges, indicating that they were on medication or could not be photographed at all because they live in hiding from an abusive parent, said board member Lola Levoy.

Levoy, owner of Beverly Hills Escrow, said that many of the children are forced out of the system when they are 18 without the skills to get along on their own and that as many as three-fourths of prison inmates nationwide were once in foster care. Among the young girls whom Levoy has assisted was one who was sold for sex from the age of 2 by a series of uncles in exchange for drug money.

Behind the horror, however, are children just like all others. Raylene plays the bass clarinet in her sixth grade school band and prefers strawberry ice cream to chocolate. Nadila loves baseball and kept her eyes peeled Sunday for her favorite celebrities.

Both girls grinned wide-eyed as rapper and actor Coolio signed the backs of their T-shirts.

They posed for pictures with JC of 'N Sync, also a product of the foster system, and ogled the Backstreet Boys' AJ.

They held hands and rode the roller coaster, stumbling off a little green but full of smiles.

"My tummy feels funny," Raylene said, "in a good way."

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