Kojo Odo, Head of Special Adoptions for Ohio, Makes the Caring Life Credible

Date: 1988-06-26
Source: LA Times

Kojo Odo, Head of Special Adoptions for Ohio, Makes the Caring Life Credible : Adoptive Father Has Room in Heart and Home for 35 Unwanted Kids

June 26, 1988|SHARON COHEN | Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — He's a bachelor who long ago traded the solitary life for 15 loads of wash every day, a four-figure grocery bill every month and enough sons and daughters to fill a classroom--35 in all.

Meet Kojo Odo. Adoptive father. Tenacious fighter. A man who takes in children no one else wants: the abused, the abandoned, the sickly, the scarred. It doesn't matter. Odo finds a place for each in his heart.

In his private life, Odo gives unwanted kids a home and hope. In his public life, he urges others to do the same.

As Ohio's administrator for special adoptions, Odo works to find homes for children, especially those hard to place. He needed no training for this job. His life is his resume.

In 15 years, Odo has almost single-handedly raised 35 children. Seven sons now live on their own; the 21 sons and seven daughters who share his 10-bedroom home range from 6 years old to 22.

'Kids Are My Dreams'

"The kids are my dreams," Odo said. "They bring me a level of satisfaction and achievement. You can take my life . . . my money . . . my car. You can burn down my house. You can't take away whatever I helped my kids achieve."

The achievements for some of the children include walking with crutches after doctors predicted lifetimes in wheelchairs, or living when they were supposed to die.

If this seems like a miracle, it isn't--Odo says love and stability are all-important. If it sounds inspirational, it is.

"If you have the capacity to raise . . . and deal with all those children, you're definitely a credible individual," said co-worker Carol Hector-Harris. "Someone who lives it as well as works it: They're believable."

Odo says he is proof that people needn't be "mainstream America" to adopt a child.

No Button-Down Style

In a gray flannel world of button-down bureaucrats, Odo, 48, favors knee-high boots, a knit skull cap and thick, clanging silver bracelets. Ten golden earrings circle one ear, a gold ring pierces a nostril and a jeweled stud sits smack dab at the center of his chin.

Odo, former civil rights activist and teacher, originally planned to adopt children once he married. When he was ready, however, he was still single. And adoption posed many obstacles for a single, black man.

After a long investigation, Odo received his first child--a 7-year-old, one-armed boy. "He had had seven placements in seven years," he recalled. "He was emotionally scarred right to the heart . . . but a survivor."

Once when Odo hoisted up his son up to a mirror, the boy broke into tears. Odo thought he was hurting him. Then he found the problem.

"He had always been told he would grow an arm," Odo said. "When he didn't grow an arm, he stopped looking in the mirror."

He's Odo's Pride

That boy became Odo's pride. "He grew and made you grow too," he recalled. At 16, he played football and basketball, had girlfriends and took college entrance exams.

But in 1982, an assailant stabbed the boy to death in New York City. "I'm still in mourning for my son," Odo said, his eyes filling with tears. "Nothing hurt me like that."

Yet, he added, "he made it possible to take some of the others."

Some of Kojo's kids have visible scars. A boy whose legs were burned when he was dunked in boiling water. A nearly blind hyperactive child. A boy with deformed ears, a cleft palate, dislocated hips and a heart murmur. A boy with spina bifida--a congenital cleft of the vertebral column. A girl with syphilis of the spine.

Others have emotional scars. One son saw his mother's boyfriend beat his younger brother to death. "He was like an animal," Odo said. "They couldn't put him in a house. They put him in an institution."

His children's abilities vary--some earn A's and Bs at school, others never finish. Some help with the cooking and watch the younger children; others are limited to simpler tasks, such as sweeping floors.

Has Some Reservations

Odo had reservations as his family grew.

"Up to 12 or 15 kids, after every kid, I'd say 'No more.' I'd reach a point at where the kid had adjusted. (I'd think) God, there are so many kids out there. We've gotten the routine down well. I can take one more."

Odo adopts sight unseen. He reviews their records, but says: "There is no way you can fabricate a meeting without the kid knowing you're shopping."

Some of Odo's children had families unwilling or unable to care for them--11 of the children are siblings from five families. Others came from institutions.

Odo never calls his children handicapped. "I consider labels to be cages," he said. "If I say 'challenged,' the sky's the limit."

That attitude motivates.

'The Ideal Man'

"He was the first man who opened my world," said son Konata, 28, a social worker and free-lance artist who lives in New York. "He was to me the ideal man . . . successful, very articulate. . . . He loved people, he loved kids."

But Odo's no pushover.

"He expects a lot from us," said his 17-year-old son, Kefentse. "He taught me self-respect. He taught me how to love--you have to look at the person and see what they need. . . . He's broadened (my) horizons. He's made a future for me."

The children share a tradition--African names beginning with 'K.' Odo composes a list of choices after "they tell me what they want their names to say about them or their potential."

Kojo's kids live in a rambling, white-frame former retirement home. Assigned chores are listed on a kitchen wall. The children rise and go to bed in shifts. Allowance varies according to age.

Odo is father, mother, teacher and friend. After work, he ignores the ringing of video games and the TV and maneuvers around wheelchairs and braces cluttering the hallway, reprimanding one son for acting up in school, a daughter for wearing a short skirt.

Avoids Institutional Feel

"People have told me I should have help," he said. "I want the children to feel it's a family, not an institution.


Pound Pup Legacy