Teaching a village to fish

The Children's Lifesaving Foundation's new Care Through College Learning Center in Santa Monica helps guide, mentor and tutor at-risk and homeless children through to college and beyond.

The Children's Lifesaving Foundation is holding its annual fundraiser, co-hosted by actor Michael Chiklis, Lilly Lawrence, and Monrose Catering,

at Malibu's Castle Kashan.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

One of Malibu's most effective and rewarding home-grown charitable groups, the Children's Lifesaving Foundation, is holding its annual fundraising event this month and it's not your typical rubber-chicken plate dinner or black-tie ball.

The foundation, and Emmy-Award winning actor Michael Chiklis ("The Shield") invite residents to a Royal High Tea at the Castle Kashan overlooking the Pacific on Sept. 23. Hosted by Malibu's "Princess" Lilly Lawrence and "Sir" Richard and "Lady" Donna Chesterfield of Monrose Catering, proper curtsies and feathered hats are de rigueur.

The CLF was launched in 1993 by Malibu resident Maria D'Angelo after she met an eight-year-old boy at a South Central Los Angeles homeless shelter where she volunteered.

"He had a pamphlet about Disneyland," D'Angelo said. "And I was dismayed when he told me he couldn't read it. Apparently, his mom, who lived at the shelter, never enrolled him in school because she'd never taken him for the required doctor's exam and vaccinations."

Shocked into action by the plight of such poverty, D'Angelo started enlisting local doctors to volunteer treatment for children of low-income families.

"One of the doctors told me about an abandoned campsite in Malibu and I thought to renovate it as a camp for these kids," D'Angelo said. "I didn't know how I was going to do it, but through the most amazing synchronicity, people appeared out of nowhere to help me do this."

She even enlisted the aid of two people, who were cousins, she met hiking in the hills and who turned out to be builders. "All the materials were donated and one day in June of 1993, volunteers just started showing up. I felt like Kevin Costner in 'Field of Dreams!'"

Thus, the Circle X Ranch was born and has provided thousands of Southland children with meaningful summer camp experiences. D'Angelo expanded the foundation's reach, which now runs a number of programs, from holiday events for shelter-bound children to tutoring bright children of limited means in preparation for college. CLF has awarded more than 40 college scholarships to date.

Chiklis has long been a supporter of D'Angelo and CLF. "When I came to L.A., I was really bothered by the fact that some 80,000 kids were living in area shelters," he said. "And their parents aren't 'bad' people. They've just fallen through the cracks. A lot of people just struggle to make a living and, for a number of reasons, they're one paycheck away from disaster."

As an actor who struggled in New York, Chiklis knows something about that. "Maria's about giving people a saving grace," he continued. "I mean people who've seen a dark pit in front of them and are grateful for opportunity. I call her 'Saint Maria.'"

D'Angelo's family immigrated from Italy to the States in the '50s when she was a child and she grew up with a commitment to volunteerism, which she has passed on to her own children, Francesca and Sean McCaffery, who run CLF.

But she said she feels that her work with inner-city youth has offered the most sociologically rewarding results. "We had a Chumash elder, Grandfather Condor, come speak about community to the first group of South Central kids back in '93," D'Angelo said. "They were all a mix of black, Latino and Native Americans and, at first, they kept all their groups segregated. By the end of the session, they were totally blended and working with each other. That's the first step to fighting gang culture."

D'Angelo quickly learned that bringing inner-city children to summer camp was not enough to break the cycle of poverty. "I realized that to help these kids, we had to help their mothers," she said. "I interviewed a lot of mothers and those who were enthusiastic and committed to living without drugs I knew were ready to leave welfare behind for good."

A seeming one-woman crusade to elevate Southland children from entrenched poverty, D'Angelo insists her success only comes from the power of her multitude of volunteers and archangels like Malibu power couples Ellen and John Poyer, Bill and Lisa Curtis, and Mel and Robyn Gibson.

To Chiklis, the foundation exemplifies the old adage, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

"CLF feeds the soul, not just the stomach," he said. "Maria arranges for low-income housing for families and sets up scholarships for kids who are bright but who otherwise could never hope to go to college."

Chiklis is currently working on building up "Team Chickie" for next year's Malibu Nautica Triathlon as CLF's fundraising event. "Normally, I think those guys are crazy," he said. "But I'm jumping into it for Maria. It's 'The Chiklis Challenge.'"

The Royal High Tea takes place Sept. 23 with entertainment to be provided by Cal Bennett and his Orchestra. Tickets to benefit the Children's Lifesaving Foundation can be purchased by calling Francesca McCaffery at 310.450.3701 online at www.childrenslifesaving.org

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