03/21/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
The 4-year-old girl was eager to meet the famed Mr. T—until she caught a glimpse of him. After one long look at the Mandinka haircut, the combat boots and the great black mass of bejeweled muscle in between, she dug her heels into the dirt and struggled for safety. "He's gonna hurt me, I know he is," she cried.
She was wrong. The imposing star of Rocky III and The A Team and the bad-dest badass in show business had come to play, not to pummel. Along with five busloads of other celebrities—including Erik Estrada, Sally Struthers and Henry Winkler—Mr. T had journeyed to MacLaren Hall, a Los Angeles County emergency shelter for abused children, for a day of food, fun and softball. And, after coaxing a grin from the by-now-game gamine, T revealed the heart of pure mush. "I'm glad to bring smiles to these kids' faces," he said. "I can't think of a better way to spend the day—any day."
This annual outing is just one of many activities that have drawn famous names to MacLaren Hall, home to 140 children up to the age of 18. With leaders like Stacey Winkler, wife of the Fonz, the United Friends of the Children has brightened the institutional face of the hall for three years. In addition to Christmas parties and "good grooming days" with celebrity participation, the group has given the hall an exercise track, a weight room and a video arcade. "They have enhanced our program more than you can imagine," says MacLaren's project coordinator, Valerie Gilbride. "Before, we had a hard time getting everything from magazines to baseball equipment."
While the celebrities have changed MacLaren, Henry Winkler notes, the hall has changed them too. "They leave a little different from the way they arrive," he said at the end of the long day. "And they want to come back again."