April 18, 1983 12:00 PM

To the 40 teenagers of the Edelvale Girls’ Home outside Nairobi, she was not a famous or familiar face. But the girls warmed to the straw-haired lady who appeared for a visit one day. Soon they were all dancing together, the American woman colorfully robed in a red, white and blue “kanga,” a loose wrap favored by Kenyan women. “They don’t see her as a star,” explained Sister Carmel, one of the five Sisters of Our Lady of Charity who run the home for abused and abandoned girls. Neither, apparently, did all the nuns. Remarked one, “Somebody said Sally Field was coming.”

In her homeland, Sally Struthers, the bumbling blonde of the sitcom Gloria, is also widely recognized for her off-screen role as spokesperson for the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF). Last month Struthers, 34, took her crusade to Kenya and Uganda for an eye-opening 12-day tour of CCF projects, which assist 31,416 children. “The needs there are greater than anywhere in the world,” observes Charles Gregg, CCF director of development. “Three out of five African children die before they’re 5 years old.” As with Struthers’ previous trips to Guatemala and Thailand, her travels were recorded for a one-hour fund-raising film, which will be syndicated beginning next August. “I don’t do this to be noticed,” says Sally. “It makes me feel like I’m pulling my load.”

Struthers’ journey brought her one jolting culture shock after another. Naive but well intentioned, she was frequently moved to tears by the enormity of the suffering. Sometimes her genuine concern came across a bit maudlin. “I’m depressed,” she announced. “Those babies are covered with millions of flies. It makes me sick. They look so sad and sweet and so hungry.”

The itinerary also included a meeting between Sally and one of the first CCF children she had “adopted.” Despite her travel agent’s suggestion that she not travel to Uganda because of continuing violence, Struthers went there to see Damiano Wanambwa, 8, whom she began sponsoring in 1980. Struthers currently sponsors eight other children with $18-a-month donations for each. “I was so frightened and nervous to be there,” recalled Sally, “and I was overwhelmed to be holding my child in my lap.” Sally brought Damiano a suitcase full of toys and clothes (including two Ralph Lauren shirts from Saks Fifth Avenue). “He seemed to like me a lot better after the gifts,” said Sally jokingly. Damiano was particularly partial to the peanut butter provided by a film crew member. At the end of the five-hour visit, Struthers was over-come with melancholy. “He had no idea of how many miles I had traveled to see him,” she noted. “At the same time, I’m glad it had no meaning for him. I wouldn’t want him to be sad.” But leaving Uganda was a relief. Said Struthers, “I felt like I did after nine days in Russia. I had to restrain myself from yelling ‘Yahoo!’ ”

Struthers’ CCF trips often take a personal toll. During her 1982 Thailand tour, she broke down after meeting victims of yellow fever and leprosy. Now, says Sally, “I walk around with mental blinders on. I see what I want to see and don’t look at what I don’t want to see.” But at the end, she concedes, “I’m wrung out emotionally.”

In her seven years as CCF spokesperson, Struthers has proved an effective draw. Following a 1974 Senate investigation of a CCF project’s misuse of funds, the nondenominational group was looking for a celebrity representative. The organization’s typical sponsor was a young working woman. “The profile matched Gloria Bunker Stivic [Struthers’ character on All in the Family] almost perfectly,” said Charles Gregg. After checking the charity out, Struthers told CCF, “I’m yours for life.” CCF credits her with bringing in 175,000 new sponsors.

From Africa, Struthers flew to London for the opening of a CCF office there and an Easter reunion with her 3-year-old daughter, Samantha. CCF is developing a master plan that calls for Struthers to visit most of the 23 countries it serves. Each month the fund sends donations to its nearly 1,000 projects, which aid 320,000 children. That prospect does not daunt the seasoned traveler. “I’ve gotten over the total depressed feeling I had the first few times,” she says. In the meantime she has a most pressing task: Send Damiano some beloved peanut butter.

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