The selfless love of ‘the purple lady’

The Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa’s longest-serving foster parent, LaDorna Penteluk, has opened her home to more than 500 children over the years. Ellen O’Connor tells her story.

As the morning light rose in the sky, LaDorna Penteluk’s Hiawatha Park kitchen quickly became a beehive of activity. Fresh eggs and milk were brought in from the barn outside, as bowls of porridge were piled high with spoonfuls of brown sugar and thick cream.

The family would gather around the kitchen table – a structure suspended from the ceiling with copper pipe – in different sized chairs purchased at yard sales over the years. While the woodstove crackled in the background and the children, usually between six and 12 of them, and ranging in age from 11 to 15, chatted excitedly about the school day ahead, Penteluk would swiftly move from child to child, combing hair and tying shoes.

From the outside, this scene may have seemed like a regular 1960s family breakfast. However, Penteluk’s kitchen was then – as it has been for 52 years now – a place of solace for many frightened and displaced children over the years.

“We knew who would be sitting down for supper at night, but we didn’t know who would be there for breakfast,” says Dixie-Lee Campbell, Penteluk’s daughter, remembering the many times she woke up to a

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new foster child in her kitchen. With an open-door policy and room at the table for whoever needed a seat, Penteluk’s home could never be too full.

Over the years, Penteluk, 80, has opened her door to more than 500 children in need of a home and family. She has provided foster care since 1960 and continues to this day, making her the longest-serving foster parent with the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa (CAS). Her selfless nature and willingness to “mother” any child is what truly makes her an inspiring woman. For Penteluk, fostering is not a job: it’s what she was meant to do.

“Fostering is a way of life,” says Penteluk. “People ask me if I’m going to downsize or stop and I say, ‘And do what?’ There are still a lot of children out there who need help.”

Her involvement with CAS goes far beyond fostering, however. As she walked into the lobby of the agency on Nov. 23, she stood true to her nickname, “the purple lady,” dressed from head to toe in different shades of purple, from her mauve fleece sweater to her aubergine corduroy pants, complete with matching purse, wristwatch and glasses.

She made her way downstairs to the clothing depot room – a place where she spends her time organizing and tidying clothing provided for the foster children. The small room was meticulous: labelled clothing baskets

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lined the shelves in perfect order, while winter coats and sweaters hung neatly along the walls. The care she put into the clothing room clearly reflected her kindness and devotion toward the children.

“She’s a pillar of the agency. Everybody knows her,” says Rosemary Gibb, Penteluk’s foster care worker for the past two years. “Whenever there is a fundraising event, LaDorna always comes in and brings food. She is much loved.”

Kim Kay-Levesque, Penteluk’s former foster worker of more than six years, says her “longevity and kind spirit” is what makes her stand out as a foster parent.

“Fostering is a passion for her; she does it strictly for the children and never for self-gratification,” says Kay-Levesque. “She knew it was a temporary placement and that she could move them onto permanency.”

To honour her 50-year milestone, the CAS nominated her for the City of Ottawa’s 2010 Citizen of the Year Senior Award, which she proudly won.

“It was an honour for the services she’s provided, for her contribution and her dedication. She is a very kind person who has done a lot for the agency and other foster parents,” says Kay-Levesque.

So where did her passion for fostering come from? Penteluk says it came from her mother. Growing up in the small Ottawa community of New Edinburgh, she was the middle child of six siblings. Her mother, an orphan from Ireland, raised them as a single parent for most of her life. Even with a house full of children, she often took in neighbours evicted from their homes.

“Sometimes it was just one or two people, but one time she took in the whole house!” says Penteluk, laughing as she recalled the time she came home to her living room full of her neighbour’s furniture. It was this selfless love for others that inspired her to lead the lifestyle she does today.

Penteluk has three biological children: Thomas, 64, Dixie-Lee, 59, and Kirk (deceased); three adopted children: Brenda-Lee, 62, Coleen, 60, and Frank, 54; and Sheila, 61, never legally adopted.

In 2006, she moved to her home on Chenier Way in Orléans, where she fosters with the help of her daughter, Coleen Rabbe.

A full house of people from all runs of life is something Penteluk and her family are used to. When a foster child comes into her home, she not only becomes their foster mother or “Bubba,” but her own children become foster brothers and sisters.

“Fostering has to be a family affair,” says Penteluk. “Our kids could resent them or be jealous or not like them. The biological children need to be on board as well for it to work.” For this reason, CAS must do a home-study to determine whether the family is a good match for the child.

Rabbe came to Penteluk at the age of 12 and felt “at home, right off the bat.” The feeling of comfort and familiarity is something she says her mother strives to create for every foster child that comes to live at her home.

Penteluk’s first experience with fostering came after she moved to the Hiawatha Park house with husband Walter and three children in 1956. At the time, she lived in a francophone community surrounded by wide-open farmland and a handful of cottages.

She was asked by her relatives to take care of their eight-month-old child because they had separated. She took care of the child for a year, until the child’s parents got back together, and afterward, CAS suggested she officially become a foster parent.

In 1960 she took in her first foster children, siblings Brenda and Jerry. Although they moved into another foster home shortly after, Penteluk applied to adopt Brenda, which was approved almost five months after the girl left the home. Penteluk then began to make her mark in the foster parent community, particularly with developmentally handicapped children.

Other foster homes at the time were unwilling or unable to care for developmentally handicapped children and so many stayed with Penteluk for long periods – the longest being 23 years.

“It’s a different kind of fostering – they were like family because they were there for so long,” says Penteluk. “It wasn’t because their parents were neglectful or had hang-ups or were dysfunctional. Their families loved them, but they just couldn’t cope with them as they got older and harder to manage with their disabilities.”

In 1968, she fostered her first handicapped child, Andre. Her family’s unfamiliarity with handicapped children was made easier by his gentle nature. He quickly became part of the family, which encouraged her to continue to foster after her husband died in 1969. Then the unthinkable happened.

“It was 6:30 in the morning and I was sleeping. They had woken up Tommy first and then came to me and says, ‘Something’s wrong with Andre, he won’t wake up. I think he’s dead.’ I flew out of the bed. It was a horrible, horrible thing,” says Penteluk as she recalled the cold February morning in 1971 when she discovered that Andre had died in his sleep from symptoms similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. His death still resonates with her today.

And Dixie-Lee Campbell described Andre as a gentle, kind soul, “almost like an angel.” Campbell says her experience with special needs children has taught her tolerance, patience, and acceptance of diversity, which she has taken with her throughout her life.

“I’m a better person because of it,” says Campbell. “Those who are different and have different problems are all individuals. There’s good in all of them.”

The ability to provide care for hundreds of foster children has been a blessing for Penteluk. However, she says letting go of the children has always been the hardest thing. Her advice for foster parents is to develop a bond with the child so they separate themselves from their past and learn how to attach to others. Each child comes with baggage and can’t be changed overnight and it’s the parents’ duty to accept them, regardless of their flaws, she says.

To this day, Penteluk is active and healthy. She strives to expand her knowledge of fostering through attending workshops and conferences around the world so she can contribute to the success and happiness of future foster children.

“You did a good job if the child is able to move on and live a happy life, because there is always someone else that you need to help.”