A little boy started it all. Carol Baras, 49, found him last year sitting on the curb in front of a San Diego grocery, “crying his heart out. His dad hadn’t taken him inside because he’d been a bad boy,” she relates, “and if there’s anything I can’t handle, it’s a kid crying. So I sat down on the curb and I talked to him, and soon I had him all smiling and feeling better about himself.” Out of that brief encounter came the inspiration for a one-way hot line for lonely, troubled children that currently attracts 19,000 telephone calls a month.
What the kids hear is Baras’ grandmotherly voice, in a recording that reassures them that things are going to be all right, that children are the greatest resource in the world, and that their families really care for them. Then she urges her listeners—who range in age from 3 to 15—to smile and hug their parents. Tapes with cheerful variations on those themes are changed twice daily and played round the clock, 365 days a year. There are now two telephone message machines whirring in a corner of her office, but even so, the lines are so overloaded that thousands of little callers are frustrated by busy signals.
Carol’s tot-line is doing for the kids what she and her husband, Bill, 54, have been doing for adults for 12 years. Their Bill Baras Seminars are the largest self-development program on the West Coast, and more than 10,000 have taken their intensive, 18-hour courses in confidence-building. The evening after her curbside pep talk with the unhappy little boy, Carol told a seminar about it, and the idea was implemented on the spot. The class donated money to help buy the first $750 telephone machine; a San Diego businessman donated the second. Carol tracked down a writer alumnus of Baras training and asked him to help her draft “a positive message for kids.” “But I don’t even like the little bastards,” he protested. Two days later, though, he mailed four scripts to her, and has assisted her in grinding out the present rotating inventory of 100. Pacific Telephone in San Diego obligingly issued a number children could remember—291-KIDS—and within weeks “the Story Lady” was famous among small fry in Southern California’s 714 area code.
Story Lady Carol Rose met Bill Baras in 1961 when both were working on a rehabilitation program for alcoholics at La Jolla Veterans Hospital. They were an odd match: She was a petite (5’3″) divorcee with three children; he was a strapping (6’2″) divorce father of a small son. Some years later they decided to pool their talents and their families and get married. Neither claims to remember the date or year, since they resolutely ignore all birthdays and anniversaries.
Bill had held a variety of jobs, from door-to-door bakery salesman to the entrepreneur behind Universal Jet, which manufactures a plumbing device that unblocks drains. Carol became the first female deejay in San Diego while still a precocious 16-year-old San Diego State College freshman, and she too zipped through many jobs while raising her kids. “I’ve always been an achiever,” she says of her careers as bookkeeper, decorator, copywriter, PR executive and lecturer. Now, in addition to the seminars, the Barases mind a bewildering number of businesses, from Mother Earth Enterprises, a manufacturer of tortilla chips, to Mom’s Saloon, a disco. Their latest venture is Jacumba Hot Springs, a run-down resort town near San Diego that was a favorite hideaway for Hollywood stars in the 1920s. Bill and nine other investors bought it for almost $2 million, and restoration is under way. Three of the four Baras children work for the family’s various enterprises and nonprofit sidelines.
Since the youngest is now 20, Carol’s abiding interest has become the tot-line. She is working on another, targeted for teenagers and their problems. Then, if she has her way, she will add a computerized switchboard programmed with hundreds of inspirational messages and “40 lines with toll-free numbers for kids all over the country.” Of course, Carol Baras is a lady who usually has her way.