Alena Strickland, 49
Orange County, Calif.

While her infant daughter Jamie battled an aggressive skull infection, Alena Strickland developed a bond with her child's hospital roommate, Latoya, an abandoned baby girl with severe intestinal problems. More than a year went by, and eventually doctors determined Latoya's case was terminal. "I asked if I could take her home," recalls Strickland. "That's how it all started."

Twenty-one years later, Strickland has taken in 112 foster children, some for a few weeks, some for a few years, all with special challenges such as autism, blindness, deafness and developmental problems. The part-time sign language interpreter and instructor eventually adopted six of the kids and became legal guardian to two more, in addition to raising her biological daughters Jamie, 22, Brooke, 24, and Joy, 26. Along the way she learned to insert feeding tubes and operate portacaths and dialysis and oxygen machines. Yet she says mothering such a challenged brood "is fun—there's never a dull moment."

Not by a longshot. Strickland, 49, and her husband, Philip Pedone, 54—a retired restaurateur and family chef—currently care for eight children under age 18 who have a range of physical, mental and emotional needs. Their Orange County, Calif., home, abuzz with chatter and animated sign language conversations, includes Timothy, 13, who has autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress syndrome and reactive attachment disorder, and who marches into the living room with a bath towel cape and a plastic sword, asking, "Mom, don't I look like one of those guys from Star Wars?" And there's Mikey, 10, blind, mentally retarded, autistic and fed through a tube in his stomach, who contentedly spins himself in a swing attached to his bedroom ceiling. Ronnie, 17, is deaf and has developmental delays, but has begun an internship at the local Petco store. Tanisha, 17, is making strides at school despite learning disabilities. And that's just half the brood.

Why take in such challenging kids? "I was faced with a need, I can, so what's my excuse not to?" she says. "In the grand scheme of things, what's more important: a child's life or me being able to go out to dinner?" Strickland socializes by volunteering for Child SHARE, a group that recruits foster parents, organizes volunteer babysitters and collects donations in 400 California churches. "She'll always help," says Brenda Bollin, 49, who relies on Strickland for advice on caring for her son Bryant, 10, who is deaf and has ADHD. "Alena is an angel in every way."

A much-needed angel. In California, the average number of families willing to take in the state's 77,000 foster children has declined about 30 percent over seven years, says Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. He says state support for many foster children ranges from $446 to $627 per month—adjusted for inflation, that's 23 percent less than offered in 2000. (State officials say the average rate is $680, going up to $715 next January.) As a result, more children are sent to institutions and group homes instead of foster families who can "provide constant love, care and support," says Mecca.

For Strickland, there's no question of continuing to nurture such children—if only for moments like the one last November, when she attended a school performance by her latest charge, Savonte, 6. "Everybody was dead quiet waiting for the director to start," recalls Strickland. "He looks at me and shouts, 'That's my mom!' It was cool."

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