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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Giving by Kids With Needs of Their Own

November 23, 2003|Dana Parsons

Nobody sold it as a life-changing event, except in the sense that everything young people see and experience fleshes out their lives and helps shape them.

With that minor bit of perspective upfront, then, let's just say that an impressive morning unfolded Saturday from the Santa Ana offices of Girls and Boys Town.

Simply put, it was people who have something giving something to people who don't. And asking nothing in return.

It happens every day in this country, but I don't think that the people pitching in every day are those who have taken plenty of hard knocks themselves. On Saturday, it was about 40 kids from Girls and Boys Town of Southern California -- most from the group home in Trabuco Canyon -- fanning out with adult supervisors to deliver Thanksgiving food to needy families.

You think the givers don't understand need? All come either from broken homes, where they took some form of physical or emotional abuse, or as products of the juvenile justice system, officials say. For that reason, I can use first names only in identifying them.

"For me, I know how it feels to go without on Thanksgiving," says Gary, 16. "When I was real young, my mom and dad didn't have their priorities straight, so they weren't there for us." He says he was put into "the system" when he was 3. For the last year, he's been at Girls and Boys Town, the modern-day incarnation of Father Flanagan's original Boys Town. "I don't even know my real parents," he says.

He isn't moping, though; not that kind of day. "It's definitely fun to see a little kid's eyes light up" when getting the Thanksgiving package, says Mike, a 16-year-old veteran of past turkey brigades. "You feel good at the end of the day, knowing someone is going to have a Thanksgiving dinner, thanks to you."

The program has been around for a few years in Southern California, orchestrated by executive director Keith Diederich. This year, about 100 families will receive packages that include all the traditional Thanksgiving menu items, capped off with a gift certificate toward the purchase of a turkey. Ralphs and Food4Less stores joined the effort with Girls and Boys Town.

The idea behind taking the kids on door-to-door deliveries is simple, Diederich says. "They've never had much given to them," he says of his charges. "They come from the same kind of family backgrounds we're delivering to. So we're trying to teach them [about] giving back to others and to the community, so they can start building empathy for other people."

It also helps them appreciate that at least while at Girls and Boys Town, they're taken care of.

No one demands that the youngsters have epiphanies on the Garden Grove Freeway. As it happens for the team of six boys I rode with, most of the recipients weren't home. However, all had been told in advance they'd been chosen, and they'll get the package later.

But even without the personal gratitude, the boys get the message.

After Kevin, 14, carries a sack of groceries to one doorstep, I ask why he got the job. "I just asked to do it," he says. "I just wanted to give something, because we get support from people at Boys Town, and we need to help other people."

About this time last year, he says, he was in Juvenile Hall. Family life is temporarily ruptured.

Then he says something that strikes me as rather eloquent for someone who's already met the justice system face-to-face. I like it, because it sounds so unrehearsed and understated, but captures perfectly what the boys are doing.

When I ask about helping strangers in need, he says simply, "It's a courtesy."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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