Mary Watkins loves kids.

Although she has been mother to 10 children of her own, most of the little ones running through her Manassas house most of the last four decades have been foster children.

Before she turned 18, Watkins started taking in children whose mothers couldn't care for them. Nothing official. "They needed a home," she said. "I just did it."

Word spread. The city of Manassas started coming to her when a child needed a home. Then Prince William County began seeking her help. Watkins, who has been a certified foster parent for about 15 years, received the county's Foster Parent of the Year award in 1989.

"Clearly it's a record," said Addie Whitaker, the county foster care coordinator, adding that most people don't take on that kind of responsibility for more than three or four years. "It's a tough challenge. Your heart really has to be in it."

Watkins, 55, is the first to agree.

"I do love kids," she said. "Seeing that kids get a good upbringing in life is my life."

Now she has six in the house: an adopted child, guardianship of two, and three foster children.

"I came from a large family. There were nine brothers and six of us girls," Watkins said. "I just like being around children. As long as God gives me strength and I can get around, I will always have a kid."

If that doesn't sound like enough to keep the average person busy, Watkins is also western county chairwoman of the Christmas committee, which helps find Christmas gifts for foster children.

Every year the approximately 125 children in the county's program write a wish list of Christmas gifts.

The committee then finds sponsors to buy and wrap the presents or contribute money toward that end.

"They like the idea of going out and Christmas shopping," said Mary Kay Snyder, a foster parent for two years and an east county member.

Here's a sample of what the children are wishing for this year:

A girl, 16, has asked for jeans, a winter jacket and jewelry. She entered foster care when her parents divorced and couldn't find relatives to take her.

She used drugs and alcohol and ran away from her foster home. After a year of counseling, her social worker says she's doing fine and could be reunited with her father next year.

A boy, 8, would like a Nintendo video game, Lego building blocks and a battery-operated car. His parents were arrested and accused of breaking and entry to support their drug habits. He's been in foster care for 18 months.

A boy, 4, wants toy trucks and tractors, and jeans. His father is an alcoholic whose children were taken from him by the county when he failed to get treatment. The family was homeless several times, often living in a car. The boy is back home with his mother, but is still officially a ward of the court.

A boy, 12, desires a Giants hat, football, jacket and sweatshirt. He was placed in permanent foster care after his parents separated and neither would take him. He has been with his current family for four years.

A girl, 16, wants black leather boots, a matching purse, a jogging suit and earrings. Her father sexually molested her for three years before she ran away. Charges were dropped for lack of evidence. She has been in a foster home for nine months and is set to move into a supervised independent living program and is working to make up the year of school she missed after leaving home.

"I know what this program means for those kids," Watkins said. "This is just something extra special."

Foster parents receive $239 to $354 per child each month, depending on age. They also get a small annual clothing allowance. Most children stay only two months or so and are able to go back to their parents or other relatives.

Over the years, many of Watkins's foster children have come back, sometimes spending Christmas with her already considerable brood.

"The ones I thought I didn't get through to are the ones still hanging on to my coattails," she said. "That makes me feel really good that they still think of me as momma."