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Man gives back to social service agency that aided him long ago

In Al Azus' time of need, Vista Del Mar cared for his children. Decades later, he helps the agency care for many more.

August 31, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Al and Hedi Azus will share in the dedication of the Al and Hedi Azus School Services building, a $1.3-million administrative and parental conference center.
Al and Hedi Azus will share in the dedication of the Al and Hedi Azus School… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

Al Azus never forgot the one bright spot in his darkest hour.

It was 1953 and his young wife had died from tuberculosis, leaving him with two toddlers. He lost his family's house, then he lost his livelihood and finally he lost his children too.

Azus said he had no choice but to place his 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son in foster care administered by a Los Angeles family services agency.

The youngsters' two-year placement allowed Azus to begin rebuilding his life. And that's why the 91-year-old, who reunited with his children after the two-year separation, has given nearly $3 million to Vista Del Mar, the agency that helped him and his children.

On Thursday, Azus will be there when the organization dedicates the Al and Hedi Azus School Services building, a $1.3-million administrative and parental conference center.

Azus is the owner of a Los Angeles envelope-printing company that he started while daughter Rhonda and son Mitchell were under the care of Vista Del Mar. The agency had found a foster home for the children several blocks from its 18-acre Cheviot Hills facility.

He vividly remembers the heartbreak of surrendering his children.

"It was one of the worst days of my life, but I had no choice. When I turned my children over … they were screaming and crying, 'Daddy, Daddy! Don't go!'" he recalls.

Shortly before the death of his wife Serene, Azus had purchased a home for their young family in a new subdivision in Pacoima; he commuted in a 1938 Pontiac to the Inglewood appliance store he co-owned.

After Serene's death at Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, Azus said, he tried unsuccessfully to find a housekeeper who could watch the children while he worked. "It was a struggle. I had no help. It was a very difficult time," he said.

A Korean War-caused shortage of raw materials used in the manufacture of washing machines and refrigerators caused the store to close, and Azus ended up losing his home. He started selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

"Selling the house, giving up my children to foster care and losing my business in the same year marked a low point," he said. "I just had to do what I had to do to survive and take care of my children in whatever way I knew how."

Foster care procedures were strict in those days; Azus was told he could see his children only on Sundays.

Azus moved from selling vacuum cleaners to selling office supplies. That's where he discovered there was a demand for printed envelopes, prompting him to launch the Alna Envelope Co.

He still goes to work Wednesdays at his Los Angeles printing plant, which is the source of the funding he has provided Vista Del Mar.

Other donations from Azus and his current wife, Hedi, have included financing for the agency's family resource center in West Hollywood and for the creation of a special fund to purchase individual items for children under Vista Del Mar's care.

Rhonda Azus died three years ago. Mitchell Azus, 61, lives in Watsonville.

Azus' granddaughter, Allegra Azus-Rouss, said she volunteered at Vista Del Mar before earning a master's degree in social work. For the last three years, she has worked at the agency as a professional "wraparound family facilitator," a specialist in keeping families intact.

She said her grandfather appreciated the agency's role in keeping his family intact 56 years ago.

"Al's support is a matter of the heart," said Elias Lefferman, the agency's chief executive. "Vista Del Mar was there for him when he needed it and he hasn't forgotten it."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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