Growing up in the inner city can be hard. Children have to put on an air of bravura to protect themselves from ridicule, or worse.

For most of the underprivileged children bussed in for Sunday's Christmas party, the festively decorated auditorium at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School was a comfortable safe haven where they could drop the front. Some tried to keep the act up.

"One of the 13-year-old boys walked up, he was all street and cool and his friends were calling out his name," said veteran actor Michael Chiklis, who was playing the part of Santa Claus. "I could feel him trembling when he sat down and then he said under his breath, totally innocent and beautiful, 'Hi Santa.' It was really hard, I'm supposed to be a jolly Santa but I just wanted to bawl my eyes out."

The boy and his peers, along with 125 other children, were bussed to Malibu by the Children's Lifesaving Foundation (CLF) for the annual holiday party, which is sponsored, in part, by Mark and Cha Cha Weinstein and California Supplies. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that has been offering free camps, outings, scholarship funds and holiday parties for underprivileged children since 1993.

For Chiklis, who for five years played the lead character in the cop show "The Commish" and more recently played characters in the TV show "Daddio" and the "Three Stooges," this was his first performance as the illustrious St. Nick for the foundation.

"Some of these kids have never seen the ocean," he had marveled earlier in the day. "Here they can see there is a world beyond the barrio that is full of possibilities and light."

For some of the children invited to the CLF party, this was their first trip to Malibu and perhaps, like Martha Melgar's family five years ago, their first real Christmas party.

"This is a dream for us, " said Melgar, who came to the event with three of her four children. "Every year I cry because it is hard for me as a mother not to be able to give to my children. The money I earn is for rent and bills, the first things in my life. Not for clothes, not for shoes, not for gifts."

Since her husband was deported to El Salvador six years ago, Melgar has been trying to support her family on wages she earns teaching people in her community how to prevent illnesses.

"In downtown L.A. we live difficult lives," she said in broken English. "But this day makes up for the other 364 days of the year. Maria is my angel."

The angel Melgar speaks of is Maria D'Angelo, one of the founders of the CLF. Through an "Adopt-a-family" program, the organization also helps match benevolent families with those who need help climbing out of the welfare system. To date, six sponsored families have been relocated from shelters to homes with the help of generous donors connected through the CLF.

Seven years ago, D'Angelo was working with children who needed medical care when she and her friends recognized more was needed to help these families than simply sending them to special doctors.

"They needed to be taken out of the shelters," said D'Angelo.

With that aim in mind, the group sought out venues, contributions and volunteers to help enrich the lives of an army of children living in poverty in Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods. In 1993 they got their break.

"It was like the 'Field of Dreams,' " said D'Angelo, describing the genesis of the organization. "We had heard about an abandoned campsite in Malibu at Circle X Ranch, and at the same time, the City of Malibu was getting ready to start helping us out. A reporter heard about the project and printed an incredible article in the Santa Monica Outlook entitled 'Miracle Needed.' Two days later, 150 volunteers showed up. There were contractors, builders, plumbers. It was amazing. We started the camp in 1993 with seven children who had been living under a blanket propped up by four posts in Lincoln Park."

Since then, more than 10,000 children living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles have been brought to the camp. Countless others have been taken on outings to Disneyland, Raging Waters and Broadway shows, or attended one of the annual holiday parties. In keeping with their ambitious mission, the CLF recently began work on a residential facility for young single mothers.

"The main thing is to make kids happy," said D'Angelo. "What you see today [at Cabrillo] is what's happening all the time."

From 10 o'clock in the morning, the crowd of children, ranging in age from 2 to about 19, watched magic shows, did crafts, competed in hula-hoop contests and built hot fudge sundaes, all the time anticipating the emergence of Santa Claus.

Each had been instructed to send in a "wish list" in October. From those lists, each child would receive a personalized shopping bag filled with seven gifts, at least three of them from their lists.

At one o'clock, the news arrived. Santa was stuck in traffic.

"Just take PCH," the emcee instructed over a cell phone. Moments later Mr. Claus had arrived, and behind him a stage full of gifts.

The younger children approached Santa dutifully and smiled for the Polaroid pictures. The older youths were egged on with chants of "beso, beso (kiss)" from the stands. And Melgar came up to receive a $500 check for her family and a bag of gifts for her eldest son who couldn't attend. She cried. Everyone cried. Even Santa cried.

The secret to the CLF's success, as told by D'Angelo, "The volunteers always get more at the end of the party than they ever gave."

More information about the organization and volunteer opportunities can be found at the Web site, www.childrenslifesaving.org.

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