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Severely Abused Kids Use Art to Find Hope

A Beaumont center helps children draw on creativity to work through their trauma.

June 09, 2005|Veronica Torrejon | Times Staff Writer

When she arrived at the Children's Village of Beaumont in 1979, Mary Ann McCoy Young painted the images of her childhood in black, gray and angry shades of red.

When she was 5, she said her father had kidnapped her and her brothers, taking them on a cross-country odyssey that ended in Tennessee. She said he had slit her face with a razor and burned her ankles with cigarettes.

With therapy during her 4 1/2 -year stay at the Children's Village, her paintings gradually began to include patches of green, then cheerful pastels.

"Things went from worse to better; there was hope," said Young, now 32. "It was a safe place."

When it opened in 1978, the Children's Village was the nation's first residential treatment facility for severely abused children, founders Sara O'Meara and Yvonne Fedderson said.

The women, who in the 1950s appeared on television as girlfriends of David and Ricky Nelson in "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," began rescuing children while on a trip to Japan with the United Services Organization in 1959. They found half-American, half-Japanese orphans on the street, cold and hungry, and took them in.

It was the first step in what became a lifelong quest, and evolved into the Children's Village and then the national nonprofit Childhelp USA.

The pair have been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize by retired UC Riverside Vice Chancellor James H. Erickson, an effort that has received letters of support from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former First Lady Barbara Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), O'Meara said.

Now called Village of Childhelp West, the sprawling 120-acre residential treatment facility in Riverside County is in the rolling hills near Lamb Canyon.

With its well-kept lawns, stables, swimming pool, chapel and 1,000-seat gymnasium all bearing the names of celebrity donors, the facility could be an upscale summer camp.

Only the art therapy studio and the children's paintings with brooding colors, phallic symbols and homes floating in space hint at the facility's function as a sanctuary for the severely abused.

At the studio, children use art to work through and process their feelings to begin to heal, said Amber Makar, a therapist at the Village.

"It's a way for them to express themselves and a way for us to understand them," Makar said. "It's a way for them to tell their story."

Inside the studio, a framed painting depicts a witch on a broomstick hovering menacingly above a house without windows or doors. Dwarfed by churning black clouds outside the house, a stick figure looks on helplessly, a 7-year-old boy abandoned by his mother.

With a $9.5-million annual budget, financed by state and federal funding and private donations, the facility has about 150 staff members, including psychiatrists, therapists, nurses and a chaplain, Village spokeswoman Lynn Elder said.

The 85 children who live at the Village come from all over California and are primarily wards of the court who have been removed from abusive homes. A few are placed there by parents who maintain their parental rights. The children range in age from 6 to 13 and stay an average of 21 months, Elder said. Some stay as long as six years.

"The facility is quite unique because it serves a younger than usual population" and because of the severe abuse the children have experienced, said Andrew Roth, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services.

He said most group homes were created for teenagers because younger children were typically easier to place in foster homes and were more likely to be adopted.

But the severely abused children at the Village can be difficult to place because they have special needs: They require 24-hour supervision and a highly structured setting.

"If you dwell on their history, you will always be depressed," said Elder, who started working at the Village 20 years ago supervising the cottages where the children live. "Many times I cried all the way home."

Each child is given a new bike, clothes and toys, which they take with them when they leave. The cottages, decorated with themes including NASCAR, Disney and the sea, each have a living room with a television and sofas. Each cottage comes equipped with a kitchen, breakfast nook, dining table and photos of all the children who currently live there, displayed behind plexiglass.

The standard practice is to give each child a place where founders O'Meara and Fedderson said they would feel comfortable sending their own children.

The women met while acting on "Ozzie and Harriet." During their USO trip to Tokyo, Fedderson and O'Meara said they found 11 orphans huddled on a street clamoring to get underneath the women's coats for warmth. They sneaked the children into their hotel room when they couldn't find an orphanage to take them.

Later, the women found more children crowded around a tiny stove in a ramshackle hut that served as a makeshift orphanage. They dropped off "their children" promising to return with supplies.

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