Almost five years ago, Amy Waldroop came as close as she ever has to realizing her dream of having a carefree, normal life.
She was about to graduate from Villa Park High School and had been offered a scholarship to UCLA, thanks to her stellar performances in the classroom and on the track team.
Then Waldroop was called into a school administrator's office. She was told social workers were planning to remove her younger siblings from their grandmother's home.
Waldroop found herself flooded with memories of her chaotic childhood, a world of living out of cars and motels, of being shuttled from foster family to foster family or--when nobody wanted Amy, her sister and three brothers--to a juvenile detention center.
It was a world that revolved around her mother, who lost her battle against drugs again and again, stumbling in and out of prison, in and out of their lives.
When Waldroop was 12, she went to live with her grandmother, later joined by her younger siblings. That arrangement lasted until a social worker discovered that her mother was making unsupervised visits to the home and moved to put the children in foster care.
On that day in 1993, toward the end of her senior year, Waldroop made a decision: She would take care of her three younger brothers and sister herself. She was 17 years old.
"There was no way I was going to let them grow up that way," she said.
A judge granted Waldroop emancipation from the foster care system, and a high school counselor proposed that Waldroop petition juvenile court to become her siblings' legal guardian. Two days after her high school graduation, she received the guardianship. For her brothers and sister, there would be no more living with strangers in strange homes.
For her, there would be no college scholarship, no heading off to UCLA.
"I gave up the scholarship that day and got the kids that night," Waldroop said.
At 23, Waldroop is single-handedly raising her three brothers--Adam, 13, Joey, 11, and Tony, 8--as well as her 3-year-old son, Donavin. For a short time, she also cared for a sister, now 18, who went to live with an aunt. She had a fiance, but he was overwhelmed at the prospect of raising a group of boys and left two weeks after she gave birth to Donavin.
Many people told Waldroop she was wasting her talents, spoiling her chances for a promising future. She didn't listen.
"People ask me, 'What are you doing with your life?' " she said. "I look at it as I'm saving other lives."
Waldroop had already proven responsible beyond her years. She started working at 12, sweeping floors at a beauty salon for $2 an hour. In high school she often held two part-time jobs, working at a Coco's restaurant and Conroy's Flowers and as a nurse's assistant at UC Irvine Medical Center.
She saved $10,000, money she hoped would buy her freedom. Instead it went for furniture, clothes, the down payment on a car, and everything else she needed to start a home.
"My brothers think of me as Mom, although they call me Amy," Waldroop said. "So does Donavin, but he's learning to call me Mom."
Waldroop cares for all of them in a rented three-bedroom townhome in Anaheim while holding down a full-time job as a receptionist at a title company in Orange.
"At first I was scared, but they're really good kids," she said. "Now they're like my own."
Waldroop has given the boys something she never had: a stable home, one with beds and toys and family photographs on the walls.
Her achievement in the face of enormous obstacles has not gone unnoticed. She recently received PacifiCare's Touch a Life Award, the highest honor given to a former foster child by the Southern Area Fostercare Effort, an Orange-based nonprofit agency that recruits foster parents for eight counties.
Antoinette Bailey, senior social worker with Orange County Children and Family Services in Orange, nominated Waldroop for the award because of "her willingness to put aside her own desires to care for her siblings and how hard she works to make ends meet and have as normal a life as possible."
While it's not uncommon for another family member to step in and take care of foster children, usually the guardian is an older relative.
"To have a sibling become a guardian is a rarity," Bailey said.
Bailey handles cases in which at least one child in the family was exposed to drugs while in the womb. She's the social worker for Waldroop's three brothers and has seen them thrive under Waldroop's care.
"They're really longing for some structure," she said.
When Waldroop walked to the podium at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena to receive her award and $1,000 prize, the audience gave her an unprecedented standing ovation.
Most of the award money went to buy beds and clothes for the boys, but Waldroop did splurge on one item for herself: a rocking chair for her bedroom. It's one of the few places she can go for a few minutes' rest.
Making a home for four boys takes up every hour. "I just feel old," she said. "I was only a child when I got them, and this is a full-time job in itself."
She's busy from the time she gets up in the morning to feed the kids until the time they go to bed, when she catches up on laundry.
Just shuttling the boys to their schools requires military-style timing. Waldroop has to make sure everybody's ready to go at 6:50 a.m. so that she can be at work by 8. She drops her son off at his preschool in Orange, takes her brother Tony to an elementary school in Anaheim and leaves the two oldest boys at a junior high in Placentia.
After work, she picks up the boys and heads home to make dinner. "Every night it's homework, laundry, baths. Then it's lights out. I'm zonked."
On a recent weeknight, Waldroop was in the kitchen baking chicken and making a salad for the boys while chatting with her boyfriend, Matthew Maas. Maas works as an assistant sales representative for the same title company Waldroop does.
"The people in his family always hug and kiss," Waldroop said. "The first time one of them went to hug me, I was like, 'What are you doing?' I had to get used to that."
Waldroop's mother was released from prison last week, but Waldroop will retain custody. She receives $1,500 a month from the county for being a foster parent to her three brothers.
After spending $1,050 for rent, $600 a month for day care and Boys & Girls Club fees, and buying gas, food, clothes and medicine, she's often "broken," as Donavin calls it.
Before school started, Waldroop struggled to pay for school supplies, clothes and book bags for all the boys.
"Everything you do, you have to do four times," she said.
When the boys are older, she hopes to go to college. Waldroop's dream is to own a house with a yard. She's already applied to Habitat for Humanity, the agency that provides housing to low-income families who help build the homes themselves.
"I'd build the whole thing myself," Waldroop said. "But there's a big ol' waiting list."
Giving up her freedom to care for her brothers has led to a few rewards: the Touch a Life prize and letters of recognition from Gov. Pete Wilson and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yet the piece of paper she treasures more than these is a Mother's Day card. The card is signed by all the boys, and it reads:
"Thank you, Amy, for being the mother that we don't have."
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For More Info
Southern Area Fostercare Effort covers eight Southern California counties. SAFE helps teenagers in foster care who are making the transition to independent living. For information, call (800) 426-2233 and ask for SAFE