Thirteen Is Enough

updated 11/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

On a recent Friday night, in the dining room of the Bain home, Kathy and Dave and their 12 youngest children eat pizza off paper plates at two tables pushed together. There, each shares a highlight of the day: root-beer floats in class, a karate demonstration, a perfect spelling test. "It was pretty today," 8-year-old Sophie says. "I'm thankful for the sunshine."

It's a ray of light from a girl who, with seven of her siblings, faced a bleak future little more than a year ago. Removed from an abusive home and parceled out to a changing cast of foster parents, Sophie and the others—Mariano, 13; Angie, 12; Stephanie, 10; Andrea, 7; Diana, 6; Francisco, 5; and Gabriel, 4—were to be separated forever as social services struggled to find permanent homes. Then Dave and Kathy, 42, of Sparks, Nev., heard about them and, though settled with five kids already, adopted all eight. "They are so generous and caring—they changed their lives for these kids," says Kevin Schiller, Washoe County children's services director. Kathy says she was just doing what came naturally. "They are all my children," she says. "I've had a child grow in my womb. They grew in my heart."

It was a big heart to begin with. Former college sweethearts, Kathy and Dave had gone through a stillbirth and subsequent life-threatening pregnancy with their son Mitchell, when doctors told them it was too risky for Kathy to get pregnant again. Living near Lake Tahoe then, the couple accepted what fate handed them. "I had a child and I was alive. I was content," says Kathy, who had once dreamed of having a big brood. Says Dave: "We'd be a happy little family of three."

Then, in 1992, Kathy heard a story—about a single mother of six who was pregnant and desperate for a couple to adopt her unborn child—that would alter their lives. Kathy, who was working as a bank manager, and Dave started talking. Mitchell, then 4, was asking for a baby brother or sister, and the couple decided to add to their family. They were finishing the nursery when, one day, the woman walked into the bank, having given birth alone, and handed a swaddled newborn girl to Kathy. "I was shocked, but the baby was so sweet," says Kathy, who named her Jennifer.

From that day on the Bains couldn't stop thinking about all the other kids they could help. They trained as foster parents, taking in Tyler, now 7, who has fetal alcohol syndrome; Jesse, 7, born to a heroin-addicted mother; and McKyla, 4, taken from a troubled home. For Dave, it became a calling; he quit his office-manager job and later began training foster parents.

But that wasn't enough. One day in 2005 Dave told Kathy about eight siblings who'd never had a decent home together. "So what do you think?" he asked. "I said, 'Ha! You are so funny!'" Kathy recalls. "'Where would we put them? Hang them from the ceiling?'" But at night she'd lie awake. "I'd think, 'Who is taking them to school? Who is helping with their homework?'"

Keeping the kids together seemed an impossible task. Beyond the sheer number, each child was traumatized; several had been sexually abused. At one point three girls shared a foster home where the "mother" would rake a pen against their legs, leaving scars. Says John Trentalagne, a therapist who has worked with them: "The prognosis for these kids would have been despair."

Knowing the Bains had experience with at-risk children, social services arranged a meeting downtown, not telling the kids Kathy and Dave were prospective parents. "Angie looked scared; a few were standoffish," Kathy recalls. "But we were impressed with their sweetness. We felt an instant connection." Buying a five-bedroom house that had lingered on the market, the couple took the group in as foster kids and, last spring, announced they were adopting them. "There was a huge scream from everyone," Kathy recalls. "They jumped into our laps and hugged us." On July 31, 2007, at Washoe District Family Court, the Bains signed the papers, passing out trading cards with the kids' pictures—and new last name—and throwing a party with a piñata afterward.

Loving the children came easily; living with them was a bit harder. Gabriel would throw uncontrollable fits; Stephanie would let loose a fusillade of insults; Francisco would spout vulgar diatribes. To spend more time with them, Kathy quit her job, so the family now gets by on Dave's county salary plus government subsidies for adopting special-needs kids. Trentalagne, an attachment-disorder specialist, moved in for six weeks at one point. "We are dealing with issues I never thought in a million years we'd deal with," Dave says. "Their needs are greater than we knew. But we accept them. Each has his own journey."

That sort of understanding means everything to Angie. "Before, my life was bad," she says. "It's all better here." Adds Mariano: "My mom and dad are showing us that being in a family is good. We take care of each other."

It's not always easy. Living comfortably but frugally, the family sticks to an $8,875 monthly budget, with individual expenses planned to the penny ($2,500 for food; $400 for therapy; $100 for field trips, school projects and activities). The kids, who sleep two, three or four to a room, have a series of overlapping schedules that would flummox a cruise director: Three, who have some learning issues, are homeschooled by Dave's mom nearby; seven attend the local elementary school; and one is in a school for special-needs students. Add in counseling, doctor's appointments, speech therapy and soccer practice. "We are like ships passing during the day," says Kathy, who shuttles kids around in a 15-seat van; Dave does chauffeur duty in a minivan.

"Life here can be crazy; you bump into people in the hallways in the morning," says 16-year-old Jennifer, who gave up her bedroom to share with Angie and Stephanie. "But Angie and I bonded really quickly and Sophie and I have become really close. It's like they were always my sisters." Other bonds have formed: Mitchell, 21, who is now married and lives nearby, loves to clown around with Gabriel, and Francisco and Jesse have become partners in mischief-making.

Kathy and Dave find joy in those new ties—and the hopeful signs that these children, though troubled, are healing. "One day at a time, one child at a time," Kathy says, "and we get there."

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