A Mother's LOVE

Lois Coby embraces some of life's most damaged children, offering a sanctuary where caring prevails.

May 09, 1999|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF

She has been an Air Force switchboard operator, a prison guard and the owner of a day-care center, but Lois Coby didn't find her true calling until a certain Thanksgiving dinner guest showed up at her door.

Gerald Eley, a young man with a developmental disability, had no place to go for the holiday. Purely by chance, a social worker asked Coby if she would mind taking him in -- just for the long weekend.

Nearly 12 years later, Gerald's photograph can be found in the family's photo albums -- along with pictures of at least two dozen foster-care children who discovered the love and comfort they needed.

In a society where drug-addicted mothers routinely give birth to children with dire physical, mental and behavioral problems, Coby is something close to a savior. The career she discovered was motherhood, caring for society's most damaged kids, and it has demanded more than she knew she could give.

"This is the work I was meant to do," said Coby, 44, without hesitation. "They're my special angels."

Some will return to Coby's home in Woodlawn today for a Mother's Day dinner. Even after her foster children have turned 21 and "aged out" of the foster-care system, they tend to come back -- for meals, or help, or sometimes just a good hug.

Lois and her 61-year-old husband, John, wouldn't want it any different. To the Cobys, these children are family -- always the priority in their lives.

"She just loves kids," said John, her husband of 22 years. "Every time a new one arrives, I always tell her, 'Lois, now don't get too attached to this one.' It just never seems to work out that way."

In Maryland, there are more than 10,000 children in foster care -- out-of-home child placements assigned by the courts. Traditionally the toughest to place are the special-needs children with multiple medical problems to whom Coby is most attracted.

While foster care has gotten its share of bad publicity in recent years -- kids getting shuffled between homes, and incidents of abuse or neglect -- the system remains the vital safety net for children whose families are incapable of raising them.

Coby's work demands that she be willing to change dozens of adult-sized diapers each week, to deal with kids who bite or fight or act up, or who may be destructive or carry the HIV virus. Johns Hopkins Hospital is practically a second home, so often must she take one of her children there to treat some chronic disease.

Mannie, a 10-year-old boy she has cared for since he was an infant, is autistic, bipolar, blind and profoundly mentally retarded. He was born to a woman who tried to abort him with a needle full of heroin.

His behavior can be unpredictable, and the webbing around his bed is zipped up each night to form an enclosure so that he can't harm others while the family is sleeping.

But he can also be loving and sweet- natured, a 93-pound boy with the innocence of a toddler. Coby makes no bones about it: He is the toughest case she's ever had, the one she complains about the most, a candidate for institutionalization, and above all else, her favorite child.

"Last time at the hospital, his neurologist asked me, 'When are you going to say enough is enough?' "

"I told him, 'When they throw dirt on my face.' I'm not blowing smoke, either. That's the truth. Nobody's getting my kids."

As she says those words, her eyes blaze and the twang of Coby's native Arkansas ratchets up a notch. The 12th in a family of 14 children, she tends to talk fast and excitedly -- and plainly, too. She has little patience for the indolent, particularly bureaucrats or school officials who aren't doing right by her foster children.

"I admire her, and I know the pain- in-the-butt side of her, too," said Louis M. Tutt, president of the Maryland School for the Blind, the Northeast Baltimore school where Mannie and Coby's other current foster son, David, is enrolled.

"She's a go-getter. You don't mess with her kids."

That's a far cry from the shy, small-town girl with curly brown hair who escaped by enlisting in the Air Force. She was introduced to her future husband at a disco on Valentine's Day in 1976. Her girlfriends had advised her never to give a stranger their dormitory phone number, but this one time, she thought it would be OK. They married later that same year.

Their union left her estranged from most of her siblings. It was a painful ordeal. John Coby, who grew up near Prince Frederick in Southern Maryland's Calvert County, is African-American. Lois Coby is white.

Her parents remained supportive until the day they died. Coby speaks particularly fondly of her mother, who almost single-handedly raised the family because her husband, a tire salesman, was on the road so much.

"If I could be a tenth of the mother she was," Coby said.

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