The cry of “dinnertime” reverberates throughout the house.
First emanating from one throat, joined shortly by another, then another, like the relays on a circuit board lighting up, the call continues until the entire Huber household either comes stumbling down the stairs or puts a puppy down long enough to get a slice of pizza.
Soon a horde of both biological and foster children, all of whom call Patti Huber “Mom,” and a handful of neighborhood kids descend on the dining room table to celebrate a birthday.
In the past 10 years, 20 foster children, some victims of neglect and physical or sexual abuse, have passed through the Hubers’ Manassas doorway and into their home, which was once a Prince William County safe house. To date, five have become permanent family members, adopted by the Hubers.
In total, 12 children live in the house in an assortment of cribs and bunk beds, with easily enough mouths to drink four gallons of milk every two days, Huber says with a laugh. Five are the Hubers’ biological children.
Because of their work with children, Huber and her husband Dirk were among the nine foster families recognized in May at the Washington Council of Governments and Freddie Mac Foundation Regional Foster Parent Appreciation Gala. At the event, the couple were named Outstanding Foster parents.
Gloria Washington, the Prince William County foster parent coordinator, said the Hubers were nominated by the county’s foster staff because of their strong commitment to foster children.
At a June 24 meeting, the Board of County Supervisors also commended the couple for “their consistently unwavering commitment to children and families in the Prince William community.”
Sitting on a wheeled chair in the living room with a young one on her knee that was intent on playing with her earrings, Patti Huber said her motivation to enter foster parenting started with a lack of fulfillment in life and a newspaper ad she found 10 years ago.
Something clangs to the kitchen floor across the house.
Huber pauses. Her ears prick up.
“Oh, it’s just plastic,” she says in a borderline-pass? tone.
In the course of an hour and half, Huber has juggled three different children in her arms. One had a diaper rash, one banged his knee on the ground, and one wide-eyed girl just needed her momma.
Though stretched thin at times, Huber said she tries, aided by her extended family, to give due attention to each child. The children range in age from toddlers to adolescents and represent a wide swath of society.
“I can count on my hands how much games I’ve missed,” said a proud Huber of her children’s involvement in everything from soccer and basketball to cheerleading and gymnastics. “God has been good to me in scheduling games.”
Improvement in foster care has also become a greater struggle for Huber. As part of the Virginia Adoptive Foster Kinship Association, Huber lobbies in Richmond for increased stipends for foster families, for higher standards of care and against the corporal punishment of foster children.
“These kids have been through enough,” Huber said.
But she said she refuses to coddle the children and allow them to lean on their past history as crutches. Responsibility for one’s actions is stressed to all under her roof.
The family, more than four times larger than the county’s average according to 2000 U.S. Census data, attempts to operate like its smaller, less unwieldy counterparts.
Trips to the grocery store become adventures. Since every child is naturally inclined to cart-pushing, Huber must take the time to strategically put smaller ones behind carts loaded with fewer items. All fall into line to form an overly excited train of brown paper bags.
Three years ago, the Hubers took 10 children on a three-week trip to Utah. Traveling in a conversion van, the family visited South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. Last year, the gang piled into the family vehicle again and went to New York and Cape Cod.
It is said that Christmas at the Huber household is a magical season. Twelve children, with two adults in tow, trooping through a Christmas tree farm squabbling over which tree is “the tree” and pointing out the flaws in each others’, Huber said, is quite a sight.
The holiday is a time when the entire family — biological, adoptive and foster children — come together beneath an attic-worth of decorations.
“I spend a lot of time trying to erase lines,” Huber said.
Every child has their own handmade stocking and special ornament which they are free to take with them when they leave to carry forever and hang on their own tree.
Huber is gleeful in her description of the children’s faces as they tear into their presents. No child is ever disappointed.
“Santa does really well at granting wishes in this house,” Huber said.
She is realistic about her expectations for the children she cares for, she said. She hopes they graduate high school, do not get arrested and leave in better shape than in which they arrived.
A veteran, she said she would encourage others to enter foster care as well and is attempting through VAFKA to create a grass-roots, local support system for foster parents.
“Foster parenting is not scary,” Huber said. “People can do it. Yeah, it can be rough, but we need someone to help these kids. Someone has to do it.”