Columbia’s Granny Pam

Love notes cover Pam Ingram’s office door at Granny’s House. Colorfully drawn, the notes bear such messages as “Granny Pam We Love You,” “Thank you for everything you have done for us” and “Keep Calm And Love Granny’s House.”

Ingram looks at the notes and searches for the right words to share why she loves the children who wrote them.

“All I can say is because they are,” she finally says. “These children are just worthy of being loved.”

Then, as she is given to do, she thinks of God’s love and expands her answer.

“God loved me,” she says, “and so I have his love in me, and that’s what reaches out to these kids.”


Change Of Heart

Ingram founded Granny’s House in 2001. Located in the Douglass Park public housing development, Granny’s House is a place for kids to come after school to see values, manners and “God’s love and tender mercies” in action. Dozens of volunteers, most of whom are college students, help carry out the nonprofit’s mission to nurture and inspire children. As the name Granny’s House suggests, the kids receive what they might receive from a caring grandmother — nourishing snacks, guidance, help with homework and, most important of all, loving attention.

“For some kids it is the first time someone has taken a positive interest in them — has conversations with them, answers their questions, takes them to lunch,” says Adrian Clifton, a Ph.D. student at MU who has volunteered at Granny’s House for about four years. “Granny builds such caring and loving relationships with children that they can’t help but love and respect her back.”

Ingram’s gift for connecting with children is so central to her today, it’s hard to imagine her without it. But the truth is, Granny Pam wasn’t always such a fan of children.

“I didn’t even like kids until I had mine,” she says with a laugh. “I had had some negative experiences babysitting and thought I didn’t even want to have kids.”

Her view softened when she had her own children — she and her husband, Ellis, a retired medical doctor, have four, all grown — but she still had no interest in ministering to children until her eldest were teenagers. That’s when she signed up for a church mission trip to Russia, thinking she’d be ministering to adults. When she learned she’d be working with kids, the idea of spending a week coloring, cutting and doing puppets almost made her back out of the trip.

“But I’d already promised my 17-year-old daughter that she could go with me, so I couldn’t back out,” she says.

During that trip, Ingram amazed herself by falling in love with two little Russian girls. She spoke no Russian, and they spoke no English, but she and the girls communicated using looks and hugs. Through that experience, Ingram fell in love with children in a new way and fell in love with ministering to children.

“It was just life-changing for me,” she says. “I went there, and it wasn’t even about me helping them. I believe it was something God wanted to put in my heart, that deeper love for children.”


Building Bridges

Although Granny’s House has several programs, most targeting either boys or girls of certain ages, those programs are secondary to loving the kids through simple actions, such as listening to them talk about their days, reading books with them or going outside to watch them turn cartwheels.

The idea is to build a bridge of love to reach their hearts, Ingram says. “And then once you’ve built that bridge of love and trust, you can walk across that bridge with all kinds of things that can help them.”

It’s a simple approach — but rarely easy. It’s one thing to supervise kids, feed them and give them lessons. It’s something else to bond with them and show them, every day, that they matter.

Jane Williams, a longtime friend of Ingram’s and the founder of another Columbia ministry, Love INC., says Ingram “works tirelessly” to provide children with that unconditional love.

“Pam also has the ability to see past bouts of anger and disrespect into a child’s heart of hurt and pain,” Williams says. “She is extraordinarily patient and works hard to build trust with the most difficult-to-love children. Her perseverance has paid off time and time again as the very children who initially caused the most trouble later became leaders.”

Perseverance became especially needful around 2007, when a changing population at Douglass Park presented a new challenge. Several African refugees began moving into the community, and soon, African children were knocking on the door of Granny’s House. Ingram found herself at a loss as she tried to minister to them. The most difficult part was dealing with the conflict that arose between the African children and the American children.

“It was a constant battle,” she says, “arguing, fighting, name-calling — on both sides.”

She blames herself in part, for not knowing how to manage the situation. Because of the African children’s pasts, she felt compelled to relax the rules a bit for them and sometimes softened their consequences. The American children — and their parents — resented the “preferential treatment.” When they complained it wasn’t fair, Ingram responded it might not be fair, but it was the right thing to do.

“I told them, ‘God sent them to us to love them into wholeness,’” she says. “We wanted them to know they could come here and have a real childhood at Granny’s House.”

There was no quick fix, no one action that solved the problem, but Ingram and her fellow volunteers kept affirming all of the children, kept loving them with unconditional love, and finally, after two years, the conflict faded and peace returned.

“That drip, drip, drip of love is something that works in any culture,” Ingram says. “I’m so glad that, by the grace of God, we were able to hang in there.”


The Gift of Grace

The grace of God is a recurring theme in Ingram’s life. Her intuition for what the children need in order to trust her and to believe in themselves comes from her own childhood memories. Because Ingram, too, grew up in public housing. Her family, which included her mother, father and three sisters, lived in the projects of Kansas City, where, she says, “some really scary things” were always present — “boys who carried guns in their back pockets and girls whose entire wardrobes came from shoplifting from the best downtown department stores.

“[I remember] seeing girls getting beat up after school because ‘they thought they were cute,’” she adds. “And then there were the weekly parties held in a nearby church basement, where I remember gunfire erupting not that many feet from where my sisters and I were dancing.”

A love for books and writing helped Ingram escape that life, first through her imagination and then through college. She was the first of her family to go to college and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She met Ellis Ingram during her last semester. He came to Columbia from Detroit for a residency in pathology at the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics. Within two years of meeting, they were married and had their first child.

Until she became a mother, Ingram had never spent much time thinking about God, although she had grown up believing in the Bible. She recalls thinking, “I’ll probably give my life to God when I’m old, but I’m going to have me some fun first.”

After having her first child, she was surprised that despite being in love and married and a mother, she didn’t feel satisfied, and she began reflecting on why that might be.

“And I saw how I had lived my life so selfishly,” she says. “It was all about me.”

She spent several painful months examining her “unvarnished” self, and that, she says, “was when I felt my need for God, when I could actually hear the good news that Christ had died for that unvarnished me I was seeing in the mirror.”

The day she decided to give her life to God and follow his ways, she knelt down and, to her great surprise, found herself sobbing — not with the sorrow she’d felt for the last several months but with relief and gratitude.

“I remember getting up, and I just felt like a different person,” she says. “I know they say Christianity isn’t about feelings, but something happened to me that morning. I just felt clean and loved. Before, I felt so dirty and despised, especially despised by God, and I just remember feeling so loved and I knew that God had been listening.”

Ingram’s story of receiving grace brings new meaning to her statement that she loves the children at Granny’s House because God first loved her. While the Granny’s House name reveals how Ingram sees herself, the name of the ministry behind Granny’s House, Hidden Jewels, reveals how she sees the children she serves.

“I feel like one of my chief roles is to unveil the kids,” she says, “so that people can see how wonderful they really are.”