Ryan McDonald

The giving season Peninsula residents Ian and Jan Teague

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by Ryan McDonald

Kids may thrill to see Santa Claus during the holidays, but given St. Nick’s hungry reputation, the child at the Christmas party was understandably nervous about his effect on the cookie supply.

It was Saturday, the first day of December, and youth in the Los Angeles County foster care system were gathered for an annual Christmas Party at The Salvation Army in Torrance. Amidst the children, social workers, elected officials and a smattering of elves were Peninsula residents Ian and Jan Teague. Jan was walking around the party when she noticed the boy who was warily eyeing Santa Claus. She did her best to reassure him.

“This little boy goes, ‘But Santa is going to take all those cookies.’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll talk to Santa,’” she said.

The Teagues had put on the party, one of three they would host that day for foster youth throughout the county. It’s a holiday tradition the couple have upheld for two decades, quietly making sure that some of the region’s most disadvantaged youth have a Merry Christmas.

Jan and Ian Teague join Santa Claus (Torrance Mayor Pat Furey) and his elves Janice Petrosino, Michelle Rand and Celeste Crandell in handing out toys to kids at the Salvation Army in Torrance last Saturday. Photo by Tony LaBruno

As he has for years, Torrance Mayor Pat Furey had donned the red suit and beard, and the Teagues did indeed know how to reach him. Furey previously worked in the Los Angeles County Counsel’s office, where he represented the Department of Children and Family Services, the agency that oversees foster care and social workers. Jan spent years serving on the county’s Commission for Children and Families, focusing on issues those groups face. The events the Teagues put on, Furey said, “give those kids a little happiness,” and are something he looks forward to every year: they give everyone involved a touch of the holiday spirit.

“When I put on that suit, I become Santa Claus,” he said.

Foster children are sympathetic targets for philanthropists, but few approach the issue with the hands-on involvement of the Teagues. Nick Ippolito is the chief of staff for Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, and before that was the deputy on children’s issues for Don Knabe, Hahn’s predecessor in District Four. He met the Teagues through Jan’s service on the commission, and has attended many of the parties they throw over the years. He was struck not just by their giving spirit, but by the depth of their approach.

“Jan and Ian were not only involved on broad level, but they were in it: They talked to foster kids, they worked with foster families, they talked to staff and understood what foster families were going through,” Ippolito said.

All wrapped up

Ian Teague did not know many White Christmases growing up. He was raised in Manhattan Beach, where he learned to surf on a Hap Jacobs board, and attended Mira Costa High School.

Jan, on the other hand, came from Michigan. She eagerly moved to Southern California when her father was transferred here for work, because she was tired of “not coming out of the house between October and April.”

Ian attended El Camino College and was working at a Goodyear tire store in the San Fernando Valley when he met Jan. His family had a company that manufactured orthopedic equipment. (Jan described it as “the stuff you never want to wear,” including “halos,” braces for the cervical spine.) It was struggling, so Ian got involved.

“They had a small business. It was floundering, so I helped out,” he said.

His modest description hides a phenomenal business success. The company climbed in value astronomically. In the early ‘90s, he sold the business. They bought a yacht, christened it “Ohana” — a Native Hawaiian word meaning “family,” but in a broader sense than just consanguinity or marriage — and saw the world.

The holiday party tradition was inspired by fellow Palos Verdes philanthropists Melanie and Richard Lundquist, who use to spend Christmas Eve at a party held at MacLaren Children’s Center in El Monte. The center, originally built for adult probationers and then repurposed to temporarily house children before placement with foster families, eventually became the subject of lawsuits. Public interest groups pointed to shoddy conditions, and said that the facility, intended to house children for only a few days, had become de facto long-term housing. MacLaren closed in 2003.

Thanks in part to the urging of Nancy Daly Riordan, Jan’s former colleague on the Commission for Children and Families and then the wife of Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, DCFS began considering a strategy known as “community-based placement,” in which the department prioritizes keeping foster youth near their birth families, in order to encourage the possibility of some day reuniting them. (Riordan died in 2009, and her obituary in the Los Angeles Times details how she was motivated to get involved in the cause by a visit to MacLaren.) Seeing the strategy implemented inspired the Teagues to try something similar.

“We thought, on that concept, let’s use the local community: a local toy store, a local caterer, and bring in the kids from the community that are in foster care,” Jan said.

Putting together the parties has evolved over the years, but the through line is a considerable investment of effort, money and time. Along with the Torrance event, the family puts on parties in Long Beach and Montebello, all on the same day. About 100 children come to each event, along with family members, foster parents and social workers. The Teagues provide food, including plenty of cookies and an ice cream sundae bar. Cognizant that some of the kids may struggle with getting enough to eat, they tell the caterer to be sure and make extra, and to bring plenty of to-go containers. In a touching bit of empathy, they have learned how the kids react to even the appearance of running low on food.

“The caterer knows, ‘If I let that tray go down too much, some kids think there is not enough for everybody, and they won’t take it.’ So he is constantly refilling it,” said the Teagues’ assistant, Bellinda Battellini.

The level of detail that goes into the parties reflects the Teagues’ desire to make the entire holiday season feel special. Every family in attendance gets a Christmas tree, packed with lights and ornaments; the decorations are done by local Girl Scout groups. And then there are the presents. In the weeks leading up to the party, social workers ask the kids what they want, and then volunteer their time to go with the Teagues to purchase them. They once relied on Toys R Us but, after the company’s financial troubles forced the closure of many of its stores, switched to WalMart this year. (Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy in September 2017, but recently announced that it was cancelling the auction of its assets.) The approach distinguishes the Teagues’ parties from other charitable ventures, in which presents are bought en masse and set out for children to choose. Foster youth, the Teagues believe, deserve not just the gift, but the feeling that comes with being a child at Christmas.

“What we’ve learned is that the kids just really like that wrapped gift,” Jan said.

The good news

Years ago Jan recalled a ride-along she did with a social worker to visit a mother and her children in a Hawthorne apartment.
“There was stuff piled this high,” she said, gesturing with her arms. “There was no room, and we were putting things on top of the fridge.” But, as Jan learned, the situation was complicated. The mom had recently escaped from an abusive marriage. And the kids, despite the mess, were fine: they were clean, getting enough to eat, and doing well in school.  “She was a great mom.”

DCFS, Jan recalled, got social workers to go in an help clean the house, a task that is not obviously within their job description. These and other experiences are at the heart of the hands-on approach the Teagues take to providing happy holidays: a sense of empathy with the people who dedicate their lives to helping children, and the complexity of the situation they are attempting to remedy.

“I think it’s so important to see what it’s like for that social worker: to go to that door and not know what you’re going to find on the other side,” Jan said.

The closure of MacLaren was part of a seesawing history at the Los Angeles County Department of Family Services. The current department head, Bobby Cagle, took over after Philip Browning resigned last year. When Browning became director in 2012, the agency had gone through three directors in less than a year. And, like social welfare agencies all over the country, the agency has to balance the occasionally competing imperatives of protecting children and keeping families together. In May 2013, Gabriel Fernandez, a child living in Palmdale who was staying at home but had been under the supervision of social workers, was found dead after enduring what authorities described as torture. The boy’s mother was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year, and her boyfriend has been sentenced to death. Four social workers have also been charged in the case.

Then-Supervisor Knabe appointed Jan to the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection that came about as a result of Fernandez’s death. Again, Ippolito said, Jan dove into the issues. “The bird’s-eye view wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to be really involved, to really understand what was happening,” he said.

Ippolito pointed to another tradition that the Teagues started for the holiday season: a brunch for social workers, many of whom volunteered their time to help put the children’s parties together.

“And not just the VIP types or the director of the department, but the line staff that do the job everyday. It was important for them to make sure those people feel respected,” Ippolito said. The brunch used to include a raffle of prizes for the social workers, until they asked the Teagues that the money be put toward additional gifts for children.

The parties, she said, were an attempt to provide recognition for a group that doesn’t always get it. Despite the grim circumstances in which the Teagues volunteer their efforts, they do get to see the shine. Last year, Jan said, a man came to the Torrance party to visit his child, who was then under the care of a foster family. At this year’s party, they returned, this time together. They had been reunified.

“You always hear bad news, don’t hear the good news. And there are good stories out there,” she said.

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