Community Hero 2010: Abbas Ahmad and his wife have spent decades as foster parents
RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- The call from the county can come day or night. Sometimes it's urgent. Always, it presents a challenge.
Abbas Ahmad and his wife of 31 years, Eva Jean Wilson, are typically asked to take the hard-to-place children. Volatile teens. Children who have been abused.
Their answer, usually yes, begins another emotional saga of welcoming, loving and letting go. For Ahmad, foster parenting is only part of a larger quest to be true to his faith, which means sharing his abilities and his heart.
"I wouldn't feel right if I wasn't being of service," he says simply.
The 56-year-old Richmond Heights man is a shepherd of rare reach. Ahmad is the spiritual leader of Cleveland's oldest Muslim congregation, First Cleveland Mosque, which his grandfather founded in 1937. He's a chaplain to the Cleveland Police Department and an interfaith leader as comfortable with Catholic priests as Pentecostal ministers.
He taught and coached in Cleveland schools for 30 years before retiring in 2005. In addition to raising their own three children, he and his wife have cared for about 40 foster children, most of whom they still hear from.
He credits his grandfather, Wali Akrim, with instilling in him an obligation to serve and an ability to cross cultures. His mother gave him his Islamic name growing up, but many knew him as Angelo Wilson when he starred on the football field for John Hay High School.
Out of respect for his father, a non-Muslim, Ahmad never legally changed his name.
An athletic scholarship took him to Hiram College, where he earned degrees in sociology and education. He became a teacher and, shortly after his marriage to Eva Jean, a foster parent.
"We decided we could make a difference," said Ahmad, a large man with a gentle demeanor.
The children are too numerous to recall at once, but some stand out, like the four siblings they reared for five years in Aurora -- white Christian children in a black Muslim home.
"My wife always cries when we hear from them," he said.
Recently, two teen boys left their care because they did not like the rules. Tough, Ahmad says. He's a foster parent, not a foster friend.
"We want to take care of somebody's children like they're our own," he said. "That means holding them accountable. I tell them, 'If I don't teach you lessons, life will.' "