Shirley Kaiser has two grown children and countless "adoptive" children. Still, she manages to make each of them feel like they're her favorite.

She generously hands out hugs and smiles at them in that special "I am proud of you" way.

Kaiser has been adding to her family tree since she became the first black elementary principal for St. Paul's public schools. And in her world, family is forever. Many of the students she taught nearly 50 years ago still keep in touch with her.

Although she retired in 2001, Kaiser has continued advocating for education. She's often on her cellphone promoting one of her children for a scholarship or referring another for a job. Her car is full of new binders, folders and pencils for students who can't afford them. Attending graduations and cotillion balls has become a part of her life.

"She's like the community godmother," said Robin Hickman, one of Kaiser's former elementary students. "It's amazing how she's everywhere for everyone all of the time."

Now 50, Hickman said she has found a friend in "Ms. Kaiser." They go out to eat, listen to jazz at the Dakota and talk about life. Since Hickman's mother passed away, the two have grown even closer.

A few weeks ago, Kaiser showed up unexpectedly at Hickman's workplace for a visit. Hickman, whose cousin had recently died, didn't realize how much she needed to lean on someone until she was in Kaiser's embrace.

"I felt like my mother ushered her there to be with me," Hickman said. "She's there to celebrate us when we do something grand, but she's there to walk with us when we're at our lowest points, too."