When Trula and William Peach took Peter home two years ago, they didn't know whether they would be able to help him. Peter, a 6-year-old with cerebral palsy, had been bounced in and out of foster homes for years without success. He was sickly and thin, wearing clothes sized for infants, and it was almost impossible to get him to smile.

"The doctor said to me before we took him that we might wake up some morning and he'd be dead. It was that touch and go," Trula Peach said. "But I figured if we could give him some of the love we had, even if just for a short while, it would be worth it."

Since he has been with them, Peter has gained weight, learned to laugh at peek-a-boo and how to reach for a tissue. And his foster family is ecstatic.

"There is no way you can't love him, and now he is spoiled rotten," Peach said. "We try to treat him as normal as possible, and I think that has helped him a lot. Of course, he will never be normal, but he's learning more than the doctors thought he would and it's been very rewarding for us."

The Peaches' experience is just one from the more than 400 foster parents in Northern Virginia being honored this May during Focus on Foster Care Month. And while their work with a handicapped child is unusual, foster program administrators say their commitment, patience and enjoyment is common among foster parents.

Social workers say children are taken into foster care when authorities decide that the children are being abused or neglected in their homes. Occasionally, children with special needs are put into foster care at the request of their natural parents in order to receive care that they could not provide.

Elda Real decided to become a foster parent after her third and last child left for kindergarten. She said she did it to have something to do and to keep the house from getting too quiet.

So, over the past 20 years, Real and her husband Curtis have taken in foster children, more than 250 by their best accounting. Some have stayed for just a few days but others have stayed for years, including four the Reals adopted.

"It's a busy household," said Real, who currently has her four adopted teen-agers and four younger foster children at home with her. "I have to keep our babies and toddler on schedule, but then everyone helps out. You have to have the whole family behind you or you can't do it."

Although most foster parents do not take in as many children as the Reals, local foster parent recruiters say they never have enough families, a problem that is especially difficult for children, such as Peter, who have special needs.

"It's very hard to find them," said Cyndy Young of the Northern Virginia Special Foster Care Program. "We look for people with a lot of patience, the ability to provide structure for a child and who will accept a social worker in their home on a regular basis. It takes a dedicated family to care for a child."

Laura Armitage's household does not appear particularly structured at first glance, with five gregarious children bouncing around the kitchen all demanding predinner snacks. But a second look reveals that Armitage and her husband Richard have chosen their two adopted children and foster children carefully so that they can keep the family workable.

"We have turned away many children who needed homes because we have to remember the children we already have," Armitage said.

The Armitages started with two teen-aged daughters, then adopted two preschoolers and have cared for 10 other children. Although there is only one foster child with them now, they recently gave up two infants and are being urged by their children to get another baby.

Foster parents in Northern Virginia receive $128 to $203 a month to cover room and board for foster children, depending on their ages, and $340 to $430 for foster children with special needs. Most parents say it costs far more than that to care for the children.

"I'd like to just keep three Big Wheels in the back yard, but it doesn't work that way," Laura Armitage said. "Every child needs his own possessions, things he can take with him when he leaves so that he feels like he has something permanent."

While the charm of infants and toddlers in need of care can be considerable, some foster parents have opted to take in teen-agers, a group that makes up for more than 50 percent of the children that need care. They are often the children whose needs are deepest and hardest to meet.

Robert Lee and Mary Ellen Timms decided to take in a 17-year-old last fall, after the teen-ager spent Thanksgiving with the Timms and their three teen-aged children.

"At first we thought the love we could give him would solve all of his problems," Timms said, "but it hasn't. We want very badly for him to succeed, but we have learned not to expect too much, to take it day by day. Still, he's very personable, has a lot of potential and has a real need that I think we can fill."