On Oscar Sunday, I found myself stacked next to a bank of reporters from People, Us Weekly and Star. Their lament: that the biggest stars of the night would be at the Elton John party or Miramax's Bar Marmont gathering, and probably not here at the Beverly Hilton for the Children Uniting Nations/Billboard Oscar party. When a stunning Christina Milian strode up the red carpet, the magazine reporters dutifully lined up with their tape recorders and inquired about her makeup, while the Disney-alum singer/actress blushed behind the glitter on her face and chest. But when my turn came, I told her that I would not ask about her hair. Instead, I asked her why she had come out tonight. She feigned disappointment, but then turned serious. “When I met Daphna and she told me about the organization,” Milian said, “I immediately wanted to become a mentor for a child; to be somebody who will talk to them and who will just be there.”
“Daphna” is Daphna Ziman, founder of Children Uniting Nations, which has linked thousands of Los Angeles foster kids with mentors. She's been instrumental in pushing foster-care legislation, most recently supporting the Foster Care Mentoring Act to provide college-loan relief for young people who mentor foster youth.
Next on the red carpet was a yellow-haired man with vacant eyes, followed a young PR woman who introduced him as Larry Birkhead of Anna Nicole fame. I asked Birkhead what he knew about foster care. He was nonplused. “For me being a new father, it was important for me to support the cause,” he said rotely.
I found Birkhead, not an hour later, apparently waiting for a cab on the curb next to the cobbled driveway of the hotel. His guest, Howard K. Stern attorney Christa Barth, waited with him. While Birkhead looked off into the distance, Barth claimed that her corner of Florida had the worst foster-care system in the country. She may have been right, but I pointed out that with more than 35,000 kids in L.A. County's care, we are the biggest. She and I agreed that, by virtue of being underpaid and overworked, the social workers in the system must be goodhearted, but that the everyday occurrence of abuse and neglect can take a toll. “These people see kids intentionally scalded by boiling water,” among other horrible things, Barth said. “They get totally desensitized.”
Early in Barth's career, she volunteered as an attorney in the juvenile courts. “That was back when I still thought I could change the world,” she said, just as Birkhead's ride arrived, and he and Barth bid adieu.
Back inside the ballroom, I talked to onetime boy-band crooner Jeffrey Timmons and Patricia Kara, famed briefcase number seven on Deal or no Deal. After a shared shot of Patron, Timmons turned earnest and said he wanted to get involved and mentor a kid. Kara said that despite her Greek roots and a grandmother who had 20 children, she wouldn't be having any babies. “There are enough kids who need a home in this world without me having more.”
By now, the guests — who had donated anywhere from $1,000 for a seat to $250,000 for a table — were sprawled about comfortably. King Adamte of Ghana and former Governor Gray Davis had a chance to speak to the likes of Marie Burke, a former foster youth who now mentors a young girl through Children Uniting Nations. Even if the night's theme could be obscured by any number of banal topics, child welfare was the obvious icebreaker between strangers.
Rapper Ice T, who grew up an orphan, stood behind the podium, addressing the revelers: “It's great to see rich white folks all out here for poor black folks.”
At a table near the stage, Australian actress Radha Mitchell described how foster care works in Australia and then asked why I became involved. I told her about the 17-year-old foster kid I met recently and how he will soon leave the care of the state. I told her that he and I had gone down to the Crenshaw Mall to meet a Navy recruiter. That the recruiter didn't even have the respect to wear his uniform; instead, he wore a long T-shirt with a rhinestone-studded image of a sneaker that read “Hood Rich.” I told her that I wanted the Navy not to be the option, but one of many options for the boy's future.
Then Bill Clinton appeared on the big screen behind Mitchell's head. In his short thank-you to Daphna and Richard Ziman, he mentioned how Children Uniting Nations was helping those born without advantages achieve their dreams.
Daphna Ziman, glowing in her pale-green gown, seemed clearly satisfied with the night.
“I chose the Academy Awards to get the media together,” she said, “to give a voice to the most voiceless children and tell them it is okay to dream.”