I get almost the same reaction every time I tell people I am a foster parent.

"That's such a good thing to do," they say. "So unselfish, so demanding. I could never do it."

Of course, foster parenting is a worthy endeavor -- and a demanding one. But it also is a joyful adventure.

My husband and I have been licensed foster parents in Montgomery County since 1997. We provide short-term (usually fewer than 60 days) emergency care. "Emergency" refers to the urgent need to find a safe home for a child who has been abused or neglected. Emergency foster parents are called before a court hearing is scheduled and before relatives are located or a longer-term foster-care arrangement can be worked out.

When we first took in an emergency foster child, our children were 6 and 9. The first children placed in our home were a brother and sister, ages 7 and 4. After two months they left to live with their aunt, who, realizing the attachment the children had made to us and we to them, gave us permission to see them from time to time. Thus began lasting ties of love and respect between our two homes.

Last summer the brother and sister, now 15 and 12, arrived at our house for a visit, and our children, now 17 and 15, welcomed them eagerly. The four young people played cards, threw water balloons and played parlor games -- childish pursuits ordinarily scorned by teenagers but relished as "traditions" of these visits.

We had few such carefree moments during the difficult two-month stay of a 9-year-old and his 6-year-old brother. The older boy had been expelled from school because of his angry outbursts; the younger boy's whining tried our patience. Although I have never heard from either boy since they left our house six years ago, I still remember the good times:

The older boy's chip-toothed smile as he ripped open presents on his 10th birthday and his proud instructions on the proper way to cook Oodles of Noodles. And how his younger brother would ask for another ice cream sandwich, and, with the hoped-for reply, snatch one from the freezer and dart out the kitchen door to resume play in the back yard.

Such sweet memories are the gifts that foster parents receive for opening their homes to children whose short lives already have had more than their share of sadness.

Foster parents are urgently needed in the Washington area, but friends tell me, "I could never do that. I would get too attached."

Attachment and love, though, are exactly what is needed, and the pain of saying goodbye is small compared with the rewards of helping a child at a time of crisis.

Recently a handsome 4-year-old with brown eyes and a grown-out crew cut arrived at our door. A police officer and a social worker brought him over late on a Sunday afternoon and gently explained to him that he would be staying at my house for a little while.

The little boy didn't cry, and he didn't ask questions. He sat quietly on the living room sofa, looking around and consuming the lemonade and the brownie I had offered. My kids batted a red balloon in his direction. He hit it back and laughed.

What reserves of hope and peace enabled him to be happy at that moment, I wondered. He had been left by his mother on a hot sidewalk only two hours earlier, and now he was playing with strange kids in a strange living room.

The next day we walked to the park, and I let him hold the leash on our golden retriever. He liked that. At the playground, he went up and down the slide a dozen times. Back at home, we sat at the dining room table and ate Cheerios.

"Do you miss your mom?" I asked.

"I like it here," he said.

A few minutes later the doorbell rang. An aide from child welfare had come to take the little boy to a pediatrician for a checkup and then to Rockville for a court hearing. The child gave me one backward glance as he left, clutching a shopping bag I had hurriedly packed with paper and crayons.

He was back three hours later, but only briefly, and he was asleep in the car. The aide told me that the court had granted his father's request to have his son live with him. I got the little boy's duffle bag and a pop-up book about a dragon we had read together the night before. I didn't wake him to say good-bye.

I cried, alone on the sidewalk, after they were gone. What would happen to that little boy? His future was not mine to shape, but I hoped it would be a bright one.

-- Barbara de Boinville

is an editor and writer for the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda.