Residents of Possum Trot, Texas, Adopt 76 Foster Children
08/30/2012 AT 01:15 PM EDT
Led by the Bishop W.C. Martin and his wife, Donna, the congregation at Bennett Chapel Baptist Church have collectively adopted 76 foster children from across the state, many of whom had been abandoned or abused.
"I never dreamed there were so many children in the system," says Martin. "We're just a little church. But this problem is all of ours."
So how did Possum Trot (population: roughly 700) take on such a big, worthy cause? More than a decade ago, Donna, who was grieving after her mother's death, says she heard a voice telling her to adopt. The Martins, who had two biological children, took in four more.
Twenty other parishioners followed their example.
It wasn't an easy road at first. When the Martins brought home Mercedes, then 5, and Tyler, then 2, "they did everything but set the house on fire," says Martin. "Actually Tyler lit up the garbage can."
The couple went on to adopt Terri – a 9-year-old left behind when her foster family went on vacation – and 6-year-old Joshua, and decided to combine affection with discipline.
The Martins used "just a lot of old country remedies," Martin says. "Make them go to their rooms, take away stuff." Today, Mercedes studies criminal justice in college, Tyler is an honors student, Terri is in cosmetology school and Joshua hopes to join the FBI.
"I don't know where I'd be [without them], probably the street," Joshua says. "My parents are nice, loving and kind."
The same can be said for parishioners Jesus and Brindy Carillo. The Carillos were well into their 50s and enjoying their empty nest after raising children from previous marriages when Martin told them about eight-year-old Michael.
Given up by his mother and abused in foster care, "he was so hopeless," says Jesus of their first meeting.
In his first six months living with the Carillos, Michael grew nine inches. Still, reminders of his past would surface. One night, the family ordered in pizza and he refused to go to the bathroom to wash his hands.
"He wouldn't budge. He said 'please don't eat all of it. Save me some,' " says Jesus. "It broke my heart."
These days, Michael is a baseball-loving kid who gets As and Bs in school and wants to become an architect. His life with his family, he says, "is good. It's not mean anymore."
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine