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OBITUARIES : Maxene McGinnis, 1926 - 2007

Girls home founder salvaged many lives

December 08, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In the end, Maxene McGinnis did more than offer a home to girls nobody else wanted. The founder of Jacqueline Home for Girls offered the girls another way of seeing themselves, a view from a different mirror.

The girls questioned their worth; McGinnis never doubted it. They said they couldn't achieve; she said she expected no less. They hung their heads; she told them to lift them high.

With that view, McGinnis wielded a power that transformed the lives of troubled girls.

McGinnis, who helped raise 210 girls in her group homes, later operated child-care centers that served 160 families and was honored with a star at Staples Center's Star Plaza, died Nov. 27 of stomach cancer at her home in Los Angeles. She was 81.

On Tuesday, the nearly 200 mourners who packed Grace Chapel at Inglewood Park Cemetery heard of the lives McGinnis helped salvage.

"She never made me feel like I was her job," Debra Johnson, who spent some of her teen years in McGinnis' home, told the mourners. "She made me feel like I was her child."

For former group home "girls" like Johnson, Phyllis McNeal and Sharon Cameron, time spent at the home was the best experience of their childhood.

"I never saw love like that. . . . I thought it was just on TV," said Cameron, who at 15 was labeled the "worst of the worst" and sent to the home.

If McGinnis had followed conventional wisdom, the Jacqueline Home for Girls might never have come into being.

Born in 1926, she graduated from UCLA in 1948 with a degree in sociology. She was eventually hired as a social worker in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. The Texas-born McGinnis, who was raised by her mother with the help of a close extended family, grew up in Dallas during a time when opportunities for African Americans were few. Jobs like hers were an accomplishment to be proud of, not to leave.

But in the 1960s, McGinnis was young and ambitious and had a vision of running a home for children in need. That vision began in her youth, grew after a stint teaching Sunday school and kept growing and refining itself; it would not let her rest.

At the social services department she was placed in charge of a unit that trained the daughters of welfare recipients to find work. But she found the girls' life skills so meager that "we had to begin with proper dress, personal hygiene . . . proper grammar and the most basic manners and social skills," McGinnis wrote in her unpublished memoir.

The girls were eager to do well, but they needed to get out of their chaotic surroundings to achieve, she said. So she gathered them together and helped them find an apartment and stayed in their lives to help them. Later she learned that a change of environment would benefit youngsters who were in juvenile hall and other locked facilities simply "because there were no other places to go."

Driven by her vision, McGinnis left her job and rented a home in the Wilshire district, opening the Jacqueline Home in 1968.

The home would eventually be filled with as many as six girls from various backgrounds, all wards of the court, referred by the county Probation Department. For each girl, she received $307 to $355 a month, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

"She was a black woman in the '60s running this home for girls," said her daughter, Michelle McGinnis. In the beginning "most of the girls were very affluent. Most of them were white."

At the house, McGinnis was "mom," and she set out to raise the girls. She disciplined them to correct behavior, visited their schools to make sure they were performing, encouraged and rewarded them and listened to them.

"It's a happy house," McGinnis said in a 1969 Times article. "People always expect something dreary and sad, and they're surprised to find that it's not."

In 1969, she married Essic McGinnis, and the following year she gave birth to Michelle, now a prosecutor in the Los Angeles city attorney's office assigned to a program through which she assists youths at Markham Middle School. In addition to her daughter, McGinnis is survived by numerous cousins.

Over the years the house earned honors for its work. McGinnis expanded to three houses, but in 1977 closed them and moved into child care, in which she continued to work until retiring this year.

Long after she closed the homes, some of the women who had lived there as girls remained a part of her family. In the end, their reclaimed lives were a testament to her work.

"She gave me hope, encouragement, pride and unconditional love," said McNeal, who holds a master's degree, is a probation officer and runs a program to dissuade young people from crime. "If not for my mom, I wouldn't be working for the system. I'd be in it."

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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