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'Mama' extends a helping hand -- and hugs -- to anyone in need


The Rev. Ophelia Hargrow answers the telephone, "Bless you."

It is Sadie Kennedy Ross on the line, again, this time asking for clothes and shoes for a boy from a troubled home. Ms. Ross, who works for the city's Department of Juvenile Services, knows she can call on Mrs. Hargrow for help.

"She's there whenever I need her," Ms. Ross says. "She's there all year round for me."

She's there for everyone, and that's why people call her "Mama."

"I've always wished I had a lot of money, a lot of property," says Mrs. Hargrow, 70. "I'd just throw my arms around everybody."

She's a foster mother. She's been a midwife and taken in unwed mothers and their babies. She's housed abandoned children and displaced families.

At Christmastime she throws a party at her house for 50 needy children. At Thanksgiving she packs food baskets in her basement.

"My house belongs to the Lord," she says.

Her three-story home in Forest Park off Liberty Heights Avenue is crowded with chairs, because the Lord sends her many visitors in need of counseling, prayer, food, clothes or a hug from Mama.

"She's our Mama Hargrow," says Eddie Montgomery, pastor of Family Bible Ministries in the 5300 block of Edmondson Ave. "We expect her to set an example, to influence the younger sisters in the right way. Every church needs a Mama Hargrow."

Althea Fancher met Mrs. Hargrow about 15 years ago. At the time, Mrs. Fancher's husband, Bishop Ivery Fancher of King's Deliverance Church, was in the hospital.

Mrs. Hargrow immediately befriended her, and several months later Mrs. Fancher herself suffered a heart attack.

"You'd have thought I was her own child," she says of the care Mrs. Hargrow provided. "I just started calling her Mama. I had no idea everybody else called her that. . . .

"She doesn't care who you are; she puts out her hand. She doesn't shrink back. She will give, even when she doesn't have any more. She'll give all she has."

Mrs. Hargrow says people have called her Mama for years.

"Some way or another the name sticks with me," she says. "And I love it. I think it's an honor."

She took in her first foster children 30 years ago in Suffolk, Va., where she lived with her husband, a singer in a gospel quartet, and their two young sons. Their home became an emergency shelter for children and families in turmoil.

She brought home children the police had found naked. She brought home babies in 3-day-old diapers.

Why? " 'Cause I care about people; I really do," she says. "I love babies. I love teen-agers. I love adults. I love the whole human race."

After her husband died, she and her sons moved in 1966 to Baltimore, where one of her brothers lived. She had 11 brothers and sisters in all. Her father was a Baptist minister, and she became a minister in 1950.

She worked as a short-order cook all night at the Steak and Egg Kitchen on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. Customers even called her Mama; they wanted only Mama's cooking.

She also worked as a maid. And she took in foster children again.

She married another foster parent, the Rev. Elijah Hargrow of the Dalton Baptist Church. They became licensed to care for adults, such as Aaron, who came to their home at age 75 after 50 years in a mental institution.

"We taught him to talk," Mrs. Hargrove says. "We taught him to sing. He went to adult day care four days a week. And he was the cutest little thing you ever saw in your life."

He died of pneumonia after three years -- the happiest years of his life, she says.

Mrs. Hargrow's second husband died in 1985. Now she cares for three adults at home.

And she's president of the Juvenile Services Volunteer Auxiliary, which is why she gets calls from Ms. Ross. Mrs. Hargrow and other members of her auxiliary rummage for clothes, food or whatever Ms. Ross needs for troubled youth in the city.

She's also prayer chairman for the West Baltimore chapter of Women's Aglow Fellowship, an organization of Christian women. She occasionally preaches at her church, Family Bible, and accepts invitations to preach at others.

She preaches, among other things, about the disciplining of children. That's the main thing wrong with the country today, she says.

"The young ones tell me, 'Oh, Mama Hargrow, you're old-fashioned.' I say, 'But I'm right.' "

Her son, William, agrees. He is 35, 6-foot-5 1/2 and 340 pounds. He works as a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup.

"Some kids don't have anybody to tell them, 'Don't do this,' 'Yes, you can do that,' and 'If this is a stretch for you, I'll be there if you fall,' " he says.

He says his mother was always there for him and his 38-year-old brother, Irvin, a security officer at Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn.

She's still there for her own sons and anyone fortunate enough to cross her path.

She gets tired, she says, and considers doing less. She has thought about canceling her Christmas party, to which social workers bring youngsters from all over the city.

"Every year I say I'm going to stop it," she says. "But the need is so great. Some of these kids don't have anything."

That's not quite true. They have Mama Hargrow.

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