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Teen's Big Heart Touches Lives of Smallest Victims

Sarah Wolfson works with USC's Violence Intervention Program to collect toys, clothes and food for infants affected by abuse.

September 19, 2004|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

Public service is nothing new to 13-year-old Sarah Wolfson. She's been at it since she was 6.

Every spring, the conscientious youngster spends much of her free time stuffing gift bags with toys, clothing and food that she solicits on behalf of the youngest victims of abuse and violence. She then donates them to the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center's Violence Intervention Program.

"I put myself in the shoes of other people and realize that not everyone has a good life," Sarah said. "It's not bad people born into bad situations. It's good people born into bad situations and who deserve something better. I would like to help them achieve that."

Dr. Astrid Heppenstall Heger, a pediatrician and the executive director of the intervention program, said Sarah's focus and determination to help others is unusual and inspiring coming from someone so young.

"There are lots of things she could be doing instead, but she has not dropped the ball on this," Heger said. "Her persistence is unique."

Sarah's crusade began in the first grade. The Wolfson family had been putting aside food for a local charity's collection bag in the kitchen of their Calabasas home. Sarah peeked in the bag and came away puzzled. Why, she asked her mother, weren't there any items for infants among the canned soup, bagged noodles and boxed cereal?

"I told my mom I was upset," Sarah said. "I kept on nagging her and finally she said OK, we can do something about it." With the help of her teacher, the concerned youngster solicited baby food donations as well as infant clothes, diapers and toys from schoolmates, gathering enough to fill 18 shopping bags.

" 'Who's going to help the babies?,' That's all she was asking me. She wouldn't let up," recalled Stephanie Wolfson, Sarah's mother, with a chuckle.

Not stopping there, Sarah talked her mom into phoning around to find a charitable cause that could use baby items. Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center's maternity ward took Sarah up on her offer for two years. Then a USC official hooked her up with the Violence Intervention Program, where Sarah decided she could help those even more needy: infants affected by domestic violence, sexual assault and shootings.

The eighth-grader is gaining a reputation for her specialized charity, inspiring schoolmates and adults alike.

"Sarah created this project. She's taken ownership of it and there's a lot of pride invested in it," said Claudia Antoine, one of several principals at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, the K-12 private school Sarah attends.

Each spring, Sarah distributes fliers and sets painted collection barrels on campus. Antoine sees a benefit to the entire 1,150-student school because volunteer helpers learn responsibility and Sarah's dedication sets an example.

"Some of the kids get very excited. They want to show others what they've brought. Particularly because it's for babies, they find this sort of thing irresistible," Antoine said.

The real work -- the sorting -- begins after the drive. Sarah does almost all of it herself, at school or home, because "I'm pretty picky about how things are done."

Her mom drives the family SUV to the school to pick up items and then to East Los Angeles for delivery to the intervention project, after Sarah has packed the items into bags her parents purchase in bulk. Beyond that token parental participation, plus moral support, it's Sarah's effort.

"We don't force her to do this," Stephanie Wolfson said. "It comes from her." Mom has one strict rule, though: "I tell her, school comes first." Despite many hours spent publicizing, collecting and delivering the items in the spring, plus occasional mini-drives during the year, Sarah is an A student.

Why infants? "That's where I saw a need," Sarah said. "And when I was younger, I was around babies a lot."

This year, the teen delivered about 100 bags to the intervention project, which annually helps about 5,000 victims -- many of them at the poverty level -- obtain medical, legal and social services.

"She's a very serious, very committed kid," Heger said. "A lot of people disregard and brush by little kids who are trying to help. I think any kid that wants to get involved should be welcomed with open arms, and we did. Those are the kids that are the future of this country."

The intervention program's clients are appreciative of Sarah's efforts, especially coming from a child whose love can be seen in every bag. "It's very transforming," Heger said. "These are things you and I would take for granted. They are high-quality, lovely packages. It's an amazing gift."

And in some ways, the values instilled in a young mind like Sarah's are as important as the donations themselves.

"I think this is one of the key things missing in families -- teaching kids to have a social conscience," Heger said.

It rubs off on adults as well. "My staff sees her as having a great impact. It's important because the message it sends to everybody in our clinic is that here's a little girl trying to make a difference."

Sarah plans to continue her public service but doesn't envision herself doing charity work for a living. She wants to be a lawyer, like her dad, Jon Wolfson. She hopes her charitable efforts will be useful in that line of work because "I'm learning to be kind to people and concerned about their situation."

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