- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

MILLSBORO, Del. (AP) - Lou Ann Rieley held a crying toddler close to her chest.

She methodically patted the child’s back, rocking her gently in a green La-Z-Boy.

The toddler’s wails were drowned out by a number of other children of all ages running in the living room - all seemingly in a hurry, but with nowhere to go.

The family dog barked down the hall, riled by the commotion. The front door swung open and two more children raced in.

“Can you all go play outside, please,” she said, patting the baby’s back.

The scene appeared chaotic, at best. But to Rieley, it was nothing out of the ordinary.

As a mother of 11 biological children, she’s used to a full house.

For the last 36 years, Rieley has opened her home to those in need of a place to stay, mostly to children who have been abused or abandoned.

Her generosity and ever-growing family has captured the hearts of her Millsboro neighbors and the rest of the state. For the last decade, her story has been featured in countless publications and television broadcasts. Additionally, The Delaware Association of America Mothers recognized her as Delaware’s Mother of the Year in 2013.

“It was a tremendous honor,” she said. “There were many other worthy mothers who could have easily carried the title.”

Rieley and her husband, John, have taken in six to nine kids through the foster care system over the years. Countless others have come and gone on their own. Many have just shown up on their doorstep.

“We’ve helped more than I can remember,” she said, counting on her fingers.

The grand total is somewhere around 40, she figured.

At times, Rieley joked, she wasn’t aware she was parenting some of the kids in her house.

“We always had this big dorm room upstairs,” she said. “We had six boys, ages 16 to 25, living up there because we had a business that employed a lot of them - we created a business for them.

“One boy was at dinner every night for three weeks and I asked him, ‘Do you live here?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I moved in three weeks ago with the other guys.’ “

Rieley always dreamed of having a big family, but more importantly, she wanted a blended one, made up of the lonely and downtrodden. Rieley herself was adopted and grew up hearing stories of her grandfather, an orphan.

He became a successful member of society - a businessman, husband and father, despite all odds.

“He never even knew his real name,” she said, handing over the crying baby to its mother, Kelly, one of Rieley’s elder children. Kelly wrapped the child in blankets and hugged her own mother.

“We’ll be back for dinner,” she said.

After they left, a hush fell over the living room. Faint sounds of children playing outside drifted in through the open window. The ceiling fan made a ticking sound with each rotation.

“Jack Davis was the name my grandfather took for himself,” Rieley said.

Though he died five years before Rieley was born, she always felt as if she knew him, thanks to the stories of her mother and grandmother.

“To hear about all that he went through broke my heart and inspired me at the same time,” she said, smiling. “I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to help those with similar circumstances.”

But opening one’s home to kids with troubled pasts can come with a price. Windows have been smashed. Walls have been punched. Doors have been kicked in. Police intervention has been needed more than once.

“You can’t even begin to understand the darkness some of these children have escaped from,” she said. “We never tolerated them acting out, but we understood it.”

There usually was a pattern. The bad behavior didn’t happen immediately, and it typically didn’t last long, she said. It would begin after what she called the “honeymoon period.” A few months after arriving on their best behavior - once they felt safe and bonded with the group - they’d start to act out.

“They’d get comfortable and then they’d get scared,” she said. “They’d be scared of getting hurt again by people they loved. So, as a way to gain control, they’d lash out, say hurtful things and get violent. Reject you before you can reject them kind of thing.”

Rieley said she’s watched this pattern of behavior dozens of times.

“It’s always rough,” she said. “But you have to hold on tight through it. We always reassured them that they had found a place of peace - a place of love.”

Troubled kids aren’t the only ones who have received the Rieleys’ love. They’ve helped drug addicts, homeless people, displaced families and single mothers get back on their feet.

But a stay at the Rieley house isn’t a vacation. Those living there must agree to the house rules, which include receiving a proper education.

Rieley homeschools all of the children. Her students study Latin, philosophy, algebra, business ethics and social etiquette, among many other subjects. She also encourages her children to take an interest in politics and the world around them.

“When our oldest kids were little, we took them to Washington, D.C., every year - not just to the museums, but to the White House, to the Capital, to the Supreme Court - and we told them from a very early age that ‘someday, you’ll come back here and you’re going to make a difference.’ And three of them so far have done that.”

Those living under her roof must also work toward independence, either keeping a job or actively looking for one.

Many don’t have to look far.

The family home sits on nearly 125 acres of farmland purchased years ago by Rieley’s grandfather. The farm has plenty of animals: cows, horses, pigs, rabbits and dogs. There’s no lack of work to be done.

Three boys bounded into the living room.

“Mom, when is dinner?” asked Matthew, Rieley’s youngest.

“In a little bit,” she said.

Not only is Rieley a wife, mother, businesswoman and teacher, but she’s also a head chef who’s mastered the art of cooking for a large family. She makes a buffet-style breakfast every morning and a big, sit-down dinner each night.

“Mealtime is important here,” she said. “It’s when we come together as a family, share our stories and adventures from the day.”

As Rieley walked into the kitchen, the last glimpse of sunlight came through the window above the sink. A holiday candle burning on the counter filled the room with the scent of candied apples, cinnamon and pine needles. A hint of bacon lingered in the air, perhaps from breakfast.

“Steak is on the menu tonight,” she said, pulling tender cuts of meat from the refrigerator.

The steaks were from the farm. The day before, they had fresh, roasted ham.

While Rieley trimmed the steaks using a pair of kitchen scissors, her husband John came home from work. The two exchanged warm hellos.

“So how many are we feeding tonight?” he asked, kissing her on the cheek.

“I think 10,” she replied.

___

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/

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