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Notebook Lifestyle

Minnesota foster mom always had an open door

Tiki Blackamore, Geoffrey Oja, Cory Blackamore, Naimo Ali, and Doris Poole (clockwise from left). (Photo by Sharon Dierberger)

Lifestyle

Minnesota foster mom always had an open door

Doris Poole welcomed dozens of children into her home over the years

THEY CALL HER THEIR SPECIAL ANGEL.

She helped them at a crucial time, and each felt unconditionally loved. They developed character and life skills: Geoffrey gained control of his anger. Tiki found her voice. Naimo learned to forgive. Chaltu started trusting.

Doris Poole was their foster mom. She is now their friend. She fostered 60 children over the course of 40-plus years and raised six biological children of her own, all as a single mom. She sheltered other kids unofficially for parents needing a break.

At 84 years old, Poole, who fostered most recently several years ago, is one of the longest-serving and oldest foster parents in Minnesota. Last year Ramsey County recognized her service to families.

With close-cropped gray hair and a ready smile, Poole lives in a two-bedroom St. Paul apartment filled with mementos such as the teddy bear perched on a bed. The kitchen counter displays a decades-old photo of her nursing class next to a portrait of a young Poole from the same era.

Today, the Fourth of July, the soft-spoken woman is eager to visit with some of her adult foster children as they arrive on her front porch. One young man can’t resist giving her a long, tight hug. He tells her how much he misses her.

I’d tell them, ‘this is your home away from home.’

She remembers back to when she met each one.

A four-bedroom home down the block is where Poole greeted so many children, trying to make them feel safe and welcome: “I’d tell them, ‘This is your home away from home.’” She gave everyone the option of calling her “Grandma.” She asked permission to hug them, then fixed their favorite foods. The first week, she let them just observe life in her house.

Sharon Dierberger

Doris Poole (Sharon Dierberger)

Poole had the children choose chores. They could not leave for school until they finished all morning tasks, like cleaning bedrooms. Daily, they swept the sidewalk down to the bus stop, as curious neighbors watched.

Geoffrey Oja, 25, lived with Poole for 10 years and remembers her explaining to him as a 5-year-old how chores were good training for a job someday. Although he didn’t understand then, he now says the discipline helped prepare him for his current job at a Target store.

Oja credits Poole for loving him even after he pushed her down as a teen and ran off in his pajamas. Policemen brought him back in handcuffs. Oja recounts: “Grandma told them, ‘You need to get my kid out of those handcuffs. He needs to eat and go to bed so he can do his homework in the morning.’”

She taught him he didn’t need to resort to anger to solve problems. And he caught her love of music as they sang blues and gospel songs together while she baked peach cobbler.

Tikonwaun “Tiki” Blackamore, 47, arrived with her younger brother Cory when she was 14, staying until age 19. She remembers the trauma of being taken from her birth mom but says, “Grandma never made us feel like our mom was a horrible person. She respected that love we had for her.”

Blackamore laughs with Poole about past memories—like the time at church when a woman collapsed, believing she “got the Holy Ghost,” and squeezed her eyes so hard her eyelids turned inside out. Blackamore says she “freaked out and told Grandma, ‘I think Mrs. H. is possessed!’”

She praises her foster mom for helping her learn to express herself verbally. That, combined with Poole’s compassion for children, influenced her to become a high-school adviser.

Poole simply loves kids. She grew up among a large extended family in Arkansas where her affection for children blossomed: “There were always children around. I was the teen who wanted to braid the girls’ hair. And I’d take all the kids to the circus. … I liked helping them.”

She never married, and after practicing nursing for 20 years in Chicago, she took another nursing job in St. Paul, where she soon started fostering full time. Some kids stayed weeks, others for years. Some wore diapers; others wore an attitude. All needed consistency and patience.

Naimo Ali, 30, arrived at age 13. She loved when Poole fixed her hair or they folded laundry because Poole just let her talk. Poole was the first person who asked why she was so mad at her dad: “She helped me let go of bitterness … and forgive him.” It was Poole who encouraged her to complete two college degrees—and who twice flew out to California for graduations.

Chaltu Basha lived with Poole as a teen after running away from other homes and ending up asleep on a bus stop bench. She sneaked away from Poole’s home, too, but Poole always forgave her and let her return, sometimes after driving across the city to find her.

Basha, 30, stayed until turning 21. She birthed her son while with Poole, and has added two daughters: “I wish my kids could live with Grandma because she taught me so much. … She never gave up on me.”

She tells how Poole put $100 into a bank account monthly for every foster child so when they left her home each would have money toward more schooling, an apartment down payment, or furniture. Poole also used her own money to take them on vacations—sometimes a cruise, sometimes driving to her Arkansas hometown.

She insisted all her children attend church and Sunday school and join choir or praise band. She gave each a Bible imprinted with the child’s name.

Some of Poole’s foster kids phone her daily. Most call at least on Mother’s Day. Many visit, like today. 

She looks around at them contentedly and quietly says, “I’m ready for more.”