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Old movies are good medicine

Sisters collect DVDs and give them to children in hospitals.

January 31, 2008|Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writer

What started as a Los Angeles family's creative way to dispose of a box of old movies has grown into a project that helps sick children cope with their illnesses.

Sisters Marni and Berni Barta, 15 and 17, run Kid Flicks, a nonprofit organization that collects old movies and ships them to children's hospitals across the country and even as far as South Africa. So far the family has collected 28,700 movies and donated them to 287 hospitals.

Old DVDs gathering dust after children have outgrown them can help distract children from pain and make long hours at the hospital a little more bearable, the girls say.

"People have all these movies they don't watch, and they can do something meaningful with them," Marni said.

The sophomore and junior at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood received presidential recognition Wednesday when President Bush met with them during his visit to the Southland.

Marni and Berni, along with two older sisters, founded the group six years ago when they were in elementary school.

The idea occurred to them after the family had to move out of their home for 14 months because of flooding and most of their belongings had to be locked up in storage.

When they returned home after repairs were completed, they realized they could live without many of their possessions, the Bartas said.

One of those possessions was a large collection of about 100 children's movies, including Disney animations and Wee Sing musicals, that the girls had loved when they were young.

The movies reminded Marni of how her friend Alex, once hospital-bound with leukemia, would watch movies to pass time. The family stuffed the movies into shopping bags and took them to the pediatric oncology department at Cedars-Sinai.

Officials there told the Bartas how much sick children rely on movies during their stay.

"Once you turn on a movie or show that they like, it really helps soothe them," said Joanne Ordono, a child life specialist at Cedars-Sinai's pediatric oncology department. "It brings normalcy to their environment."

Enthralled that their simple idea seemed to make a difference, the sisters started asking other families for their old stashes.

Donations quickly started pouring in. Initially, it was a minimal operation of picking up videocassettes and DVDs from neighbors and dropping them off at children's hospitals around Los Angeles.

Then it was Orange County. Soon, weekend drives as far as Santa Barbara became routine.

By the time Marni and Berni entered high school, they had run out of nearby hospitals in need of donations. The girls, who took over when their sisters left for college, hit the Internet to find hospitals around the country and organized bake sales to raise money for shipping. They sent e-mails and letters to studios and production companies asking for donations of new movies.

Movies started piling up in the family home's small office, then overflowed to the living room. MGM sent 3,000 DVDs.

"You can imagine that took up my living room," said Denise Barta, mother of the girls.

Now the Bartas' pool house has been transformed into a warehouse where more than 1,000 movies are stored. The sisters tend to every shipment of donated movies with professional dedication, their mother said. In 2005, Kid Flicks ( www.kidflicks.org) became a registered 501(c)3 tax-deductible nonprofit, which means the sisters are also responsible for immaculate bookkeeping.

"You can just start something small and it can become something you never imagined it would be," Berni said.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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