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Mama Lucy's work with troubled youth taught her all the cuss words — and more importantly, their stories

As Lucy tells the story that was passed down to her, she almost didn’t make it. Her mother’s breast milk had become poisoned, and Lucy was so desperately ill as an infant in Egypt, a call was put out to the Armenian family’s pastor.

“My grandmother took me in her hands and said, ‘Dear God...if this child is going to die, take her now or else...let her live and serve you.’”

And that’s how Lucy Garabedian Abdelradiy, who moved to the United States many years ago with her grandmother and the rest of the family, became known to relatives as the miracle baby.

When she was just 7 or 8, she helped look after her younger cousins in Pasadena. When she completed high school and went on to Pasadena City College, her plan was to be an accountant, but a psychology class put her back in touch with a nurturing instinct inherited, perhaps, from her grandmother. Should she be a marriage or family counselor?

While trying to figure out the next step, Lucy got a job at a gas station mini-mart. One day the manager asked if she could do him a big favor and drive his sister to a job interview.

On the drive, the woman told Lucy she was going after a childcare position at Hillsides, a nonprofit that houses and counsels children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Lucy had never heard of the place. When they got there, the receptionist asked Lucy if she’d like to fill out an application too.

She hadn’t intended to, Lucy said, but why not?

Her friend did not get hired.

Lucy did.

And she stuck around.

Today in Pasadena, Abdelradiy will be honored by Hillsides for 35 years of service to children.

This isn’t a retirement party. Abdelradiy loves the job too much and hasn’t begun to think about walking away. It’s just a day of recognition for a woman who has been a comforting presence for hundreds of children whose lives have been traumatic in countless ways.

On Monday morning, I visited the cottage where Lucy spends her days supervising and tending to the needs of 10 teenage girls. Two 14-year-olds were getting ready for school, with one working on her hair in front of a full-length mirror.

One girl said she lost her home in Hurricane Katrina, and her aunt lost her life in the storm. Both girls said they had been away from their biological parents for years. They said they feel as though they can always talk to Abdelradiy, no matter what their problems are.

“Like how my mom left me and my sisters, and we got put in the system,” said one girl.

“She’s just there for us,” said the other. “She listens.”

Many years ago, a 7-year-old took a particular liking to Abdelradiy, following her everywhere. The child asked if it was OK to call her Mama Lucy, a name that stuck.

“Whatever you’re comfortable with,” said Abdelradiy, who took a while herself to get comfortable at Hillsides.

“To be honest with you, I couldn’t believe that kids would cuss you out as a grown-up. I never heard cuss words in my life, and it was like, ‘Wow, where is this coming from?’” Abdelradiy said.

“I went home to my grandmother and I said, ‘Grandma, I can’t do this...They’re driving me crazy. They’re calling me all the names in the book.’”

Her grandmother told Abdelradiy that in time, she would be a blessing to the kids. Just stick with the job.

“I was naive,” said Abdelradiy, who sometimes went home with bruises after breaking up fights. She had never before heard a certain word that starts with “B” and rhymes with “itch,” and had to ask a coworker for the definition.

“Now I know all the cuss words,” Abdelradiy said. But she also knows where they come from.

The kids she works with are wounded, in great pain and filled with anger. Some have gotten into trouble, but Abdelradiy was less inclined to judge them after learning their stories. They have been physically abused, sexually molested, abandoned, betrayed. They have been court-ordered out of their homes, shipped off to foster families, separated from siblings, bounced here and there.

Hillsides therapists work with them; Mama Lucy is there for them when they return to their dorm cottage. She takes them to school and to the doctor, serves unlimited helpings of tough love, delivers the dreadful news that they have to clean their rooms or pay the consequences, and sits with them if, at the end of the day, they still feel lost or alone.

“Kids need to know that they exist,” Abdelradiy said. “Sometimes they don’t even need to fix something. They just need to know that you are hearing them.”

She learned when to back off and when to lend an ear. And she learned to say goodbye, in some cases to kids who were with her for as long as 10 years.

One went on to become a nurse. One became a lawyer.

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“I can name so many of them who are successful,” Abdelradiy said.

Many of them — including Stephanie Castillo, 39, who is in management at a nursing home — are in regular contact with Mama Lucy.

“When I was there, I always thought of myself as her child,” said Castillo, who lived with Abdelradiy from the ages of 10 to 13, and later sneaked back in to visit with her.

It didn’t begin well between them.

Castillo had been through a lot, and she was shy, frightened and defiant. When Abdelradiy told her to clean her room, Castillo sat on the  floor, crossed her arms and stubbornly refused. It took six months for Castillo to understand that Abdelradiy was on her side, and then they were inseparable.

“It was like a mother hen and baby chick. I was always underneath her,” said Castillo, who runs a toy drive and donates the gifts to Hillsides.

“She nurtured and loved me...She helped mold me into who I am today. She basically instilled in me self-confidence when I didn’t have it as a child.”

To Abdelradiy, who is deeply religious, this was all scripted.

From her survival at birth to the unplanned job interview at Hillsides to a life in the service of children.

“I guess it’s my grandmother’s miracle,” she said.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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