HEATHROW — It was a few days before Christmas, and Gwyn and Bob Picerne were trying to gather the children for a holiday photo. When you have 13 kids — 14, if you count the baby they have taken in as foster parents — this isn't so easy.
Chase, one of the "originals," as Bob calls their two biological children, was mesmerized by a video game and had only fleeting contact with reality. Andrei, 22, and his sister Lida, 18, both adopted from Russia, were bickering over how long ago they came to the United States — though if they agreed on this, they would find something else to argue about.
The twins, 17-year-old Marvin and Martin, adopted this year after spending 13 years in Florida's child-welfare system, were trying to rescue a baby squirrel whose home was inadvertently disturbed by the landscapers.
Gwyn Picerne, 46, shook her head and smiled knowingly. "Sweet pandemonium," she said.
• • •
In their sprawling, 11-bedroom home in Heathrow, there is always a certain quotient of chaos. In the past year, the Picernes have added six children.
"Really, we never set out to have 14 children," said Bob, 53. "They were just sort of dropped in our laps."
His wife nodded. "I think people who are led to reach out need to reach out," she says. "It's too easy to just walk by."
It was a lesson she first learned on a Christmas long ago.
Like her husband, Gwyn Picerne grew up in a family with six children. Unlike her husband, she grew up in poverty.
When she was 4, her father was killed in a car accident, and Gwyn's mother raised the children largely on her own, sometimes working three jobs. When Gwyn was 9, her baby sister needed open-heart surgery.
Gwyn's mother told her other children there would be no Christmas presents that year — save for the "gift" of having their sister come home from the hospital, if she was strong enough.
But one night, about a week before Christmas, the family came home from a hospital visit to find a bounty of presents piled higher than the door of their double-wide mobile home. Gwyn's mother stepped from the car and fell to her knees, crying. "Who did this?" she sobbed gratefully.
A church had rallied its parishioners, who adopted the family for Christmas. Even better, her sister came home for Christmas and lived to defy doctors' dire predictions.
Gwyn remembered thinking, "Someday, I want to make people feel the way we do tonight."
• • •
Bob and Gwyn met in a bar. Three years later, they eloped to Las Vegas. Then came two beautiful, healthy children and two successful careers — his in real estate, hers in insurance.
As Gwyn's faith blossomed, she said, God began to show them children who needed them.
The first was 15-year-old Davey Welch, the son of a family friend they saw at a funeral. The Picernes were stunned to learn that the boy had moved out of the family home and dropped out of school.
"He had become a thug," Gwyn said, "and he just thought that was his life." After a long talk, Bob persuaded the boy to move into their home and return to school.
"I was very young at the time," says Chandler, 16. "But I remember that immediately I thought of him as my brother."
Next came Andrei and Lida. Someone at their church had given a talk about a boy in a Russian orphanage who needed a home. After much prayer, Bob says, "God laid it on our hearts" to adopt the teen, who had a sister in the orphanage, too.
Then there was 6-week-old Natalie, whose Vietnamese mother approached Gwyn in a nail salon after hearing about the adoption of the Russian children. "My boyfriend is throwing me out of the house, and I have nowhere else to live. I'm homeless," the woman said. "Please, can you take my baby?"
Next was 1-day-old Hannah, who turned out to have a nearly 3-year-old sister in foster care, Ally. The girls' mother, who is ill, wanted the Picernes to adopt both. And in the past year, the family has been joined by Kyrique, 8; his brother, Ezekiel, who just turned 2; 6-year-old Ezra; and the twins, Martin and Marvin.