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TIMES HOLIDAY CAMPAIGN

Anaheim homeless children get room to stretch

December 11, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The answer to the question had been simple for the homeless teenager, Michael Baker says, but it stunned the banquet audience into silence: What's most challenging about your situation?

"Doing my homework," Shaquila had told potential supporters of the Anaheim Boys & Girls Club. "I have to do it in the bathroom because there's seven of us living in the motel room.

"I put the toilet seat down and sit on that and put my book on the sink."

It's one of the stories Baker, the club's executive director, likes to tell when introducing the motel program for children that he began five years ago

"Tell me," he says in his bombastic, New York style, "what kind of level playing field does Shaquila have compared to other kids who have homes? Right: none. And that's the point."

Because Baker knows what's at stake for the estimated 2,000 children living in the city's 43 low-income motels, the club offers free transportation between the motels and the center, and scholarships to pay the club's $20 yearly fee. No child is turned away. During a typical month, the program serves at least 650 children at two club sites.

Monday through Friday, a van picks them up after 3:30 p.m. and takes them to the club, where they can study, play and use computers, all under the watchful eye of the staff. Saturdays were added to the program last year.

The idea for the motel program came after Baker, 39, was hired in 2000 and toured the city. He drove to one of the motels and saw children playing in the parking lot with the only thing available: a broken grocery cart.

"That's it; that's all they had," Baker recalled.

Baker recalled his sentiments on the tour, and they later became the motel program's motto: "Because a parking lot is no place for a kid to play...."

The Times Holiday Campaign awarded $12,000 to the club this year.

Phillip Sanchez Jr. was part of the club's program when a staff member heard he needed a job. Now 17, he works as an activities director and says part of his paycheck goes to help his mother, two sisters and a brother.

"There's too many gang members and people doing drugs all the time at the motels. It's easy to get pulled into that," he said, adding that he wants to enlist in the Marines and do something with his life.

When Baker introduces the program to people, some respond negatively, he said. "They say, 'They live in motels and that's because of their own actions. And if they're criminals, they made their bed, let them lie in it.' "

But Baker counters that attitude by asking: "What did a 6-year-old do to deserve this? These kids are innocent, and yet they have to live in these motels."

During a fundraiser at the Anaheim White House restaurant, Baker met Bruno Serato, the restaurant's owner, and one of the club's benefactors.

Baker talked up the motel program while Serato eagerly listened. A couple of years passed. Then, one evening while his Italian mother was in town, Serato visited the Boys & Girls Club with her.

"She looked at the kids playing and knew they were hungry and said, " 'Bruno, if they don't eat at nighttime, you are responsible to feed them' ... and when Momma says something, you have to do it," Serato laughed.

Serato said he crunched the numbers, and, with his mother's admonition fresh in his mind, decided to feed the club's children. Each night a van picks up enough pasta from the restaurant to feed 70 children at the club, roughly 30,000 meals a year.

"Let me tell you about one night over at the Boys & Girls Club," Serato said. "I gave a plate of pasta to a little girl and she came back two times, and then three times for more pasta, each time asking, 'May I have more?' I knew no one little girl could eat so much, and I had tears in my eyes realizing that that girl was starving. It was heartbreaking."

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The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $500,000 in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771.

To give by credit card, go to latimes.com/holidaycampaign.

To send checks, use the attached coupon. Please do not send cash.

Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.

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david.reyes@latimes.com

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