Barbara Mallonee always wanted a bunch of children. But 85?

That's how many children have called the Cape St. Claire woman "mom" over the past 25 years.

All have been foster children.

Some have stayed four months, others 20 years. But all have been her children.

For her service, County Executive Robert R. Neall is calling her and her husband, Gordon, the county's Most Beautiful Parents. Neall will honor the couple and the two runners-up -- Michelle A. Day of Glen Burnie and Miriam and Mladen Stanicic of Annapolis -- at a reception today at the ArundelCenter in Annapolis.

State officials created the contest this year, and Gov. William Donald Schaefer will honor the winners from each county at an Aug. 17 reception at Towson State University. He also will announce the overall winner.

In all, 27 county parents were nominated, county health department spokeswoman Evelyn Stein said.

The judges based their selections on a number of criteria, including whether the parents were good role models and provided a loving environment for children.

"I think these people can serve as role models to other parents," Stein said. "The winners exemplified the marvelouspeople out there in the county."

The Mallonees will receive the use of a pavilion at Downs, Lake Waterford or Quiet Waters park, Steinsaid. The runners-up will be given an annual pass to county parks.

The award stunned Mallonee.

"This was really a complete surpriseto me," she said. "I got goose bumps when I was told about it."

She was sitting in her living room, as her four current foster children played on a porch. Marc, 22, was watching them. The Mallonees took him in when he was 3 1/2, and he has legally changed his last name toMallonee.

While listening to the children play, Mallonee said, "Idearly love children. That's why I do it. I still hear from some of them. One little girl sends me Mother's Day cards and postcards. I love them all."

She started taking in children in 1966, after doctors told her that she couldn't have another child. Mallonee had three children at the time, and eventually had another child in 1969.

"I like large families," said Mallonee, who has only one brother. "I would have had a dozen if I could."

The grandmother treated every child as her own, nurturing them, caring for them.

Mallonee even wound up adopting one, a boy named Sean, now 16.

"They're my kids while they're here," she said. "I thank God that there are foster parentswho can give them love and a routine."

She has taken in as many as five foster children at a time. She's currently caring for three boys and a girl, who range in age from 19 months to 3 years. Two are brother and sister.

Sherry Medley, a county Department of Social Services foster-home worker, marvels at Mallonee resilience. Mallonee, for example, rarely says "no" when it comes to taking foster children.

"She is available," Medley said.

Department officials nominated the Mallonees and three other foster parents for the Most BeautifulParents award.

In a letter to the judges, department officials cited Mallonee's special love for physically and mentally handicapped children, particularly a young Down's syndrome boy who also was blind and deaf, Medley said.

Mallonee remembered the 2-year-old. "He would not have survived if someone didn't care for him," she said. "He couldn't do anything for himself."

But Mallonee gave him round-the-clock care. She took him to physical therapy sessions, enrolled him in a school for the handicapped. She persuaded local organizations to buy him a wheelchair and feeding chair.

"Never once did I think that this was too much work," she said. "I had a ray of hope that someday he would be able to do something for himself."

If Mallonee had to choose, she'd pick the special children every time.

"I really feel good when I have a child that needs special help," she said. "I really put forth my best."

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