Mary Castorena knows a little bit about being a mother, if you consider a “little” having 67 foster children living in your home over the last 24 years. She also knows a lot about family. Today, her family consists of 29 children, 16 grandchildren, and one husband, Nicolas.

When she was only 17 years old, Castorena had a child of her own, a son, who became infected with viral meningitis. Although he survived, he suffered mental retardation and died when he was seven.

She said she struggled with depression and tried amny times to have another child.

“All I ever wanted was to be a mama,” Castorena said. “I wanted a family and a yellow house. I wanted four children, two girls and two boys. That was my dream.”

As the years passed, she and her husband struggled with not being able to have another child. Through years of depression and disappointment, her mother told her something that now makes perfect sense. “My mother was a strong Baptist and she said that God had a purpose for me. I see now that if I had children of my own, I would have never brought the first three children into my home, would have never become a foster mom and would have never got the family I have today.”

The Castorenas have opened their doors and their hearts offering love and support to children who might not have had a chance otherwise. If you ask her how it all started, a huge smile overpowers her kind face as she takes a trip back to a time almost a quarter of a century ago when she was faced with raising her niece’s children.

Vickie, Gilbert and Roger Aguilar, Castorena’s great niece and nephews, were the first children to join the Castorena family. They were small children, 18 months, three, and five, when they were first brought to the Castorena home.

While at home with their parents, the Aguilar children were faced with abuse, neglect and a mother and father who were alcoholics and often times in trouble with the law.

“In the beginning, the kids would come and stay for a few days and then one day she (their mother) never came back,” Castorena said. “The kids were finally removed from their home permanently and my husband and I were given legal custody.”

When she took custody of the Aguilar children, she said her own family began to unravel.

“My life seemed to fall apart. The kids came in December. I wasn’t working at the time and both of my parents were having health problems so I had quit my job to care for them,” Castorena recalled. “By March, my dad’s cancer was back, he passed away in July. Six months later, my mother was dead. The loss of my parents was a big one and I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t stand to be here (in Erath County), so I packed up all three kids and we moved to Frisco where my husband was working.”

During the time she and the kids were away, her niece became pregnant again. Little did Castorena know, it was that unborn child who would turn her five-person family into a tribe.

The youngest of the four kids, Michael, was born into a home very much like the one in which his siblings were raised. He was beaten and mistreated and was removed from his home by Child Protective Services (CPS) when he was about two.

“I knew that CPS had taken custody of Michael,” Castorena said. “I also knew that there was no way we could afford another child. I grew up in an era when people didn’t rely on welfare, so it wasn’t even an option.”

Castorena, knowing the importance of family, went to CPS to see if she could arrange visits with Michael, to allow the four siblings to be together and to know each other.

“They (CPS) were thrilled, as soon as they figured out I had the other three, they were ready to hand over the youngest. I told them there was no way. They asked if we would consider being a foster parent to Michael.”

The Castorenas agreed that fostering Michael would allow them to keep the kids together as long as possible, and from a financial perspective, be easier than adopting him. So they went to classes and obtained the proper licenses and certifications and soon the three brothers and one sister were all living under one roof. Eventually, the couple adopted Michael, now 18.

Although bringing the children together seemed like the end, it was actually just the beginning.

“We had Michael for about five months when CPS started calling,” Castorena said. “They would call any time of the day or night and they would start with a story about a child who had just been removed from their home. I didn’t have a choice, when I heard what the children had been through. I had to take them.”

So, for 24 years, the Castorenas helped every time they got a chance. Until recently, there were always six foster children living in the home. Some were babies, only a few months old while others were young teen moms or expecting mothers. Several stayed for only short periods of time until they were returned to their families or put in permanent homes.

She admits that each time she got a call, she could never say no. “There were times I was hesitant,” Castorena said. “But I always, eventually said yes.”

There is never a dull moment for the Castorena clan.

“We have birthdays every month of the year. We celebrate Christmas together, all of us. We have to take all of the furniture and shove it against the walls so we can all fit, just to be near each other. I still buy presents for all of them, the kids and the grandkids. I start shopping in January and shop all year long. And the babies, they come in pairs. When a new grandbaby is born, there is another one on the way.”

She knows that she has given each of the children who have come through her doors another chance at life and a new family.

“A lot of the kids would not have had a chance. I have had children three and four years old in my home who had never seen a toothbrush. I had one that hoarded food — afraid he wouldn’t get another chance to eat. I had some that every time I put them to bed, they would remove the sheets and pillow cases. They had never had a real, clean bed of their own.”

Besides being a part of the Castorena family, she said that the kids all had one thing in common.

“We consider ourselves lucky. We never had any real problems with drugs or anything else,” Castorena said. “We have always took into consideration the situations that each of the kids came from, and I never expected one of them to be perfect or get straight A’s in school - but I worry about them, I have always worried. All I have ever wanted or expected is that they become self-supporting, law abiding citizens.”

As the kids grew older, they were never forced out, onto the streets unprepared. The Castorenas eventually set up a doublewide trailer on the lot next to their home. The older kids were allowed to stay. They had to support themselves and help pay the bills but never did they have to leave.

Now, Castorena is embarking on a new phase of her life, with only a couple of kids in the house. She is finally prepared to focus only on the family she has built.

“I am now 54 years old, I have been raising kids the better part of my life,” Castorena said. “Now, I am going to take some time off, I am not going to say yes to the next call form CPS. My husband and I have a cruise planned and I might even take on a part time job.”

As far as the family is concerned, yes it will continue to grow and yes, the kids will always have place to call home.