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Developer gets recognition for aid to children

Para Los Ninos, which assists low-income families, dedicates its skid row facility in honor of Rick Caruso and his wife, Tina.

January 11, 2007|Adrian G. Uribarri | Times Staff Writer

Developer Rick Caruso is best known for transforming Southern California's retail landscape with his splashy open-air shopping villages, such as the Promenade at Westlake Village and the Grove in Los Angeles' Fairfax district.

But if his projects are sometimes criticized as facsimiles of city life, Caruso couldn't be prouder of the location of the one building that bears his name: skid row.

On Wednesday, Para Los Ninos dedicated its original downtown headquarters as the Tina and Rick Caruso Child Development Center, one of eight centers run by the nonprofit, which assists low-income families by providing charter classes, meals, after-school care and counseling.

"It's in one of the poorest, most devastating areas of Los Angeles," Caruso said. The center "represents hope for children."

The center began in 1980 by providing day care for 45 children in the shell of a false-eyelash factory. It now serves 3,000 children a day at 21 facilities, with an annual operating budget of $18 million.

At the building's dedication Wednesday, police stood nearby, separating the homeless from children playing in the closed street behind a small white fence. Inside was a carnival-themed celebration, the result of a seven-year relationship between Para Los Ninos and the Caruso family, which has donated more than $500,000 to the agency.

"There was an immediate love affair," said Gisselle Acevedo, president of the nonprofit. She said the Carusos were enamored of the center's children during a 1999 tour, and that soon after they became contributors.

Board of Directors Chairman Roger Carrick remembers the Carusos' first gift of $100,000 toward a playground. He said such donations are important because they allow the organization to work outside the restrictions of government grants, which come with stipulations.

"It becomes the elastic that holds all the building blocks together," he said.

For the 2006 holidays, the Carusos visited Para Los Ninos with their four children, who helped hand out food, gift cards and 2-foot-tall teddy bears.

Caruso said a child at the center approached him and said, " 'I don't want my teddy bear to get dirty.' The problem is the apartment he lives in -- there's three families, and it's dirty. It's right in the middle of skid row. It just breaks your heart. He just wants to keep his teddy bear clean."

His father, Dollar Rent-a-Car founder Hank Caruso, was at the event with his son, who was also celebrating his 48th birthday, which was three days earlier.

"My dad was a coal miner," the elder Caruso said, speaking of his days in Pennsylvania before the family moved to Los Angeles around the time of the Great Depression. "My mother made sure that she saw the report card. We lived by the rules."

It is this last that Rick Caruso said he draws on when he contributes to Para Los Ninos, which serves children whose parents often work long hours in nearby garment factories.

"We come from humble roots," said Caruso, who initially declined to have the center named after him. "I want my kids to realize there's great pride in that."

Seated next to his wife, Tina, and their 11-year-old son, Justin, Caruso became emotional as his name was unveiled at the site.

City Councilman Jose Huizar, former president of Los Angeles' Board of Education, said the Carusos are helping Para Los Ninos invest in the future.

"Study after study shows that when we invest in kids at an early age, we get huge dividends," he said, "not just for them, but for society as a whole."

Police Chief William J. Bratton, who also attended Wednesday's ceremony, used an adage to echo support for the Caruso family's contributions.

"No man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child," said Bratton, who was recruited to the department during Caruso's tenure on the Police Commission.

Caruso cites the examples of Edward and Edwin Morales, whose mother enrolled them in Para Los Ninos as she struggled to keep her job and raise four children. The twins, then infants, were among the first children the Carusos met at the center.

In the past seven years, the Caruso family has seen them grow into first-graders. Caruso, who crawled on his knees to give them hugs and kisses, said their story is an example of how Para Los Ninos is helping parents better raise children.

"These are families that are some of the poorest of the poor in the city," he said. "They're hard-working, good people that are just trying to do their best."

Acevedo said the ultimate goal of Para Los Ninos is to give its students the opportunity to achieve more than their parents.

"A sign of success will be that they go to college and break the cycle of poverty," she said.

Caruso said the twin boys are just a couple of success stories among many to come.

"They're just full of life," he said. "They'll call their shots in life, I'm fully convinced."

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