Fitting tribute for a child advocate

By MELODY McDONALD

Lorie Poe invited family friends to the dedication of Poe's Playhouse. Grace Check, 1, front, and Lexi Tooley, 2, find toys to play with as Richard Alpert reads a statement honoring Mitch Poe.
S-T/RON T. ENNIS
Lorie Poe invited family friends to the dedication of Poe's Playhouse. Grace Check, 1, front, and Lexi Tooley, 2, find toys to play with as Richard Alpert reads a statement honoring Mitch Poe.

FORT WORTH -- Prosecutor Mitch Poe's daughters were no strangers to the playroom on the ninth floor of the Tarrant County district attorney's office.

When their father worked evenings and weekends, Kelsey and Whitney could often be found there. In fact, over the years, the girls donated toys, DVDs and books to the room so child victims would have something to play with while they waited to testify or be interviewed.

It was a room close to Poe's heart.

And now, it bears his name.

Earlier this month, in honor of Poe, who died suddenly in August of congenital heart failure, the room was beautifully refurbished and named "Poe's Playhouse."

"I think he would be extremely pleased and honored that they would do that for him," said Poe's wife, Lorie. "It doesn't look like anything you would expect from a government agency building. It was very impressive."

Prosecutor Richard Alpert, chief of the misdemeanor section of the district attorney's office, was among those who came up with the idea. Last year during the holidays, the office adopted a family with eight children who had been victimized. This year, in the same spirit, Alpert suggested providing gifts to Poe's daughters since it would be their first Christmas without their dad.

Although Lorie Poe appreciated the gesture, the girls didn't need anything. So they began thinking about revamping the playroom, creating a warmer place for children.

"The goal was to give them someplace where they can take their mind off of why they are here, that actually makes coming up to this strange place not as scary," Alpert said.

Fixing up that room was particularly fitting because Poe, who served for years as chief of the Crimes Against Children Unit, was a huge child advocate and a regular there.

"This is where Mitch had a big impact," Alpert said. "This room is where his kids hung out while he was up working on weekends. This had more of a connection to the family."

An e-mail soon went around the DA's office, inviting staff to donate children's books, markers, stuffed animals and videos. Money was also collected to purchase additional items.

The response was overwhelming. Soon, the carpets were cleaned and old furniture was moved out. Blue paint went up on the walls. A big dollhouse donated by Alpert's daughter decades ago was redone.

Several female prosecutors came up on their day off and painted trees on the walls. Prosecutor Rainey Webb created a colorful mural that said "Poe's Playhouse."

And then, something unexpected happened: Design professionals got involved.

Misty Otto, a public relations manager at Pier 1 Imports who used to work with Lorie Poe, heard what they were doing, and Pier 1 offered to donate furniture.

"A stylist came over and looked at the room, and they sent a team of six people to bring in furniture and design everything," Webb said.

When the team members learned they were creating a space for abused children, they poured their hearts and souls into it, Webb said.

"Just watching them work, you could tell that they wanted to make this a special place," she said.

The room's furniture, artwork, pillows, knickknacks, even a chess board, are all perfectly coordinated. Toys and books are in abundance. A TV and computer are ready to go.

"It had been a very sterile, governmental room," Webb said. "Now, hopefully, it is a more comfortable place where they feel more at home while they are waiting to testify."

On Dec. 13, the room was dedicated in a ceremony marked by tears and laughter. Prosecutor Sheila Wynn gave Lorie Poe a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings of Poe's cases. A plaque on the wall reminded visitors of Poe's legacy: "His memory lives on through the lives of his children and those whose lives he touched."

And Kelsey, 8, and Whitney, 11, and their friends immediately took to the room.

"They just went after it," Alpert said. "There wasn't a part of the room that wasn't used."

Sitting in the room recently, Wynn, Webb and Alpert looked around and all agreed that Poe would have been pleased.

"It took on a life of its own," Alpert said. "This is so perfect, so beyond what we expected. The goal was to make it a celebration of his life and his contributions, a permanent symbol of the impact he had on this office."

This is so perfect, so beyond what we expected. The goal was to make it a celebration of his life and his contributions, a permanent symbol of the impact he had on this office.

Donations

If you would like to make a donation in honor of Mitch Poe, make a check or money order out to Poe's Playhouse. Send it to the Tarrant County Credit Union, 100 East Weatherford St., Suite 205. Fort Worth, TX 76196.

MELODY McDONALD, 817-390-7386
mjmcdonald@star-telegram.com