As a child, Christina Mason saw the healing that could take place when caring people opened their doors to strangers.
Mason's aunt cared for foster children, and a mentally retarded uncle lived in an adult foster home, allowing her to see firsthand what a difference it made in his life and the lives of all those involved.
Beth and Bob Mills listen as Sarah, a mentally retarded woman who lives in their foster care, plays Christmas tunes.
(Photos Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
So when Mason, 55, of South Riding saw a poster 16 years ago seeking foster homes for mentally disabled adults, she didn't even think twice about responding.
"I wanted to do this for someone else as a way of paying back," she recalled.
Not long after Mason called the Loudoun County Mental Health Community Resource Center in Leesburg, she welcomed Anna, a mentally disabled adult, into her home. Anna, now 60, has been an integral part of Mason's family since her arrival in 1988. Anna's parents are dead, and she has no relatives to care for her.
Officials with the center say Mason's background, experience and motivation to help others are all factors that have made the placement successful. But besides Mason, only two other Loudoun families currently provide foster homes for mentally disabled adults, said Catherine Motivans, the center's community resource coordinator.
"We have a waiting list of 19 people right now who are seeking residential placement -- either in a group home setting or individual home," Motivans said.
Many fostered adults, or those who are being considered for the program, have outlived their parents or primary caregivers. Others find that their caregivers can no longer look after them because of advancing age or illness. Sometimes, the adults end up in a state-run institution with no access to jobs, even though they have the skills and capacity to work and become productive members of a community.
Loudoun's Adult Foster Care Program enables mentally disabled people to grow and become more independent -- while improving their quality of life -- by living in a traditional family setting. Benefits to the fostered adult are familiar ones -- stability, caring social interaction and the ability to take part in the daily activities of family life.
"Everything we do is the same as other families," said Mason, who explained that Anna really is part of the family. They go out to dinner together, go bowling (one of Anna's favorite pastimes) and take vacations together.
"Anna's gone on every vacation with us except Cancun," Mason said. "She doesn't have a birth certificate, so we couldn't get a passport for her. She must have been born at home."
Mason is a mother of five and has seven grandchildren, who range in age from infancy to 18 years. She said that Anna, who reads at the fourth-grade level, was among the first to read books to the grandkids, and they have all bonded with her.
"She's their aunt, as far as they're concerned," Mason said. "The older ones really look out after her."
Like other fostered adults, Anna does not require around-the-clock care.