"I can make her laugh," John Corbin said, gently stroking the face of a crippled child who strained angrily in her wheelchair to get a better look at the intruder.
Then she saw Corbin and smiled.
"Some of them can't get out of their wheelchairs," said the 80-year-old Corbin, a former contractor now working part-time as a foster grandparent at The Hospital for Sick Children on Bunker Hill Road NE." "I pay special attention to them."
Corbin said he loves all children without exception, and raised 12 of his own in a nine-room house on Rhode Island Avenue. He retired seven years ago, and decided last year to help raise sick and disabled children less fortunate than his own "countless" grandchildren.
"Who would be better fit to look after kids?" he asks, a toothy smile brightening his otherwise serious expression. "After all of mine, I have to love kids."
Once a week, Corbin is picked up by the United Planning Organization van and chauffeured to the hospital. From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., he waits for the children to get hungry and then spoonfeeds them.
Corbin describes his life as "comfortable," with a moderate biweekly stipend from UPO to supplement his Social Security income. But he admits it is a quiet life, much different from the hectic pace at which he worked to support his own children.
Since the death of his wife in June, Corbin has used his job as a foster grandparent to fight off what he describes as a crippling disease of the elderly -- loneliness.
"When you can get up and get around and don't do it, you're losing yourself," explains Corbin, who attributes his longevity to good health care and a stable home life.
"You've got to fight," he added emphatically.
"He's a great person, full of energy," said Diane Offutt, a hospital nurse who has known Corbin as a neighbor for nearly 12 years. "When his kids were growing up, he wasn't home except for three or four hours a day because . . . he worked three or four jobs. And now he likes to be around kids."
As a real-life father and grandfather, Corbin described himself as "patient and considerate" but emphasized the need for parents to maintain control over their children, "to bring them up right."
Although Corbin now sees little of his own children and grandchildren, he insists, "I love them all the same."
"You can always find a lot of women (working as foster parents), but seldom can you find a man," said Corbin's landlady, Henrietta Keyes, 50, whom he has known for 19 years and says he plans to marry in the near future. "He's a man with 12 children of his own. My grandchildren love him; the children over there love him . . . He has a kind of patience and love."
Diana Gaskins, coordinator of the foster grandfather program, estimates that 60 persons between the ages of 60 and 82 are now working in city hospitals and day-care centers. She agrees that there are few men involved in the program, explaining that women tend to outlive men, so there are more women over age 60.
"I don't think it has that much to do with men not wanting to be around children. Men are much more interested in being active . . . They're used to working every day," Gaskin said.
Despite advancing age, Corbin says he intends to keep the job indefinitely.
Some days at the hospital are more trying than others, but Corbin succinctly concluded, "When you like what you're doing, it helps a lot."