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EVERYMOM

Mentha Thomas feeds thousands of Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans at every home game. She feeds thousands of Pinellas County students each school day. She feeds nine fragile foster kids living with her and her husband year-round.

It is all part of her grand plan: nourishment of young bodies and souls.

"Mentha is everybody's mom," says Tropicana Field concessions manager Elise Aronson. "She's been a godsend to us, to all these kids. If you don't get a hug from Mentha, the day's not complete."

She looks a decade younger than her 65 years. Her warm smile, brightened by a gold-capped front tooth, is well-known to family and friends. She calls people "sweetie pie" and "baby doll" and one day, to break the ice, made her three Trop bosses hug.

This is Mentha. Just another face behind a concession stand or on the street _ unless you've been pulled, as so many of her friends and co-workers have, into her ever-growing extended family.

But what floors them is the pace she maintains.

"I don't require a lot of sleep," she says. "My head is constantly going as to what I can do for someone."

When it comes to Mentha's missions, there is barely enough time in the day.

No time to rest

For four years, she has been a fixture at Tropicana Field, overseeing the Grand Slam Grill and as many as five other concession stands a game. They form the foundation of one of her many endeavors, a mission she founded called the House of Praise and Blessings.

Ten percent of the earnings from each concession goes toward the mission, which is in the process of being incorporated, Thomas says. She conceived it as a way to give local teens in need _ and, in some cases, struggling adults _ a chance to learn business skills and earn cash to buy clothes or open a savings account. Some of the money also goes to the mission's sick and homeless and to her goal of one day opening a church.

But there's more than the mission in her life.

She and her husband, Albert Thomas, a retired state social worker, have provided a home for more than 100 special-needs foster children in the past 20 years. In 1989, they became one of the first African-American couples to adopt a white child in Pinellas County. They may actually have been the first, though no official records confirm that, according to Elaine Fulton Jones, spokesperson for Family Continuity Programs.

Today, the Thomases have nine children living at their modest St. Petersburg home, with the extra-long blue van in the driveway. Their foster kids, ranging in age from 8 to 20, are black and white. One is of Hungarian descent. Two teen siblings, a brother and sister, have Hindu beliefs. Several children are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed and one is mildly mentally impaired.

The one common denominator: All come from family backgrounds rife with either neglect, abuse or a lack of structure.

"The kids she has are very challenging," says case supervisor Bruce Wilt of Family Continuity Programs, which oversees foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. "She does this from the heart _ I know it's not for the money."

The main source of Thomas' income, beyond basic foster child subsidies, comes from her career in the food industry. A former executive chef at beach resorts such as the Don CeSar and the now-defunct Breckenridge, Thomas has been a food services manager in the Pinellas County school system since 1986.

For five years, she has overseen food preparation at Gibbs High and four other schools, about 3,000 meals per day. A plaque in her Gibbs office proclaims her as one of the school system's top support employees of 2002.

Allie Kimble, Thomas' senior assistant at Gibbs and at the Trop, shakes her head and smiles: "She has too much energy."

At the Trop

On a recent afternoon, three hours before game time, a handful of Grand Slam Grill workers hover over hot dog buns and bags of chips, preparing for hungry baseball fans.

Thomas arrives in her customary white T-shirt and tan skirt, as she does for all 81 home games. She has just spent three hours at home meeting with case workers for some of her kids. But Thomas is all smiles, ready for a shift that often lasts eight hours.

One of her foster kids, Janitra, 17, has come along to work. She joins an array of high school kids who will work the counters, cash registers and grills. Her goddaughter, Carolyn Allen, a mental health supervisor, is here as usual. Sometimes she and Thomas also share Bible verses if a customer looks particularly troubled.

But the teens remain the focus. "We've helped families," says Allen, "by helping their kids."

The mission began with a parking lot.

Thomas' church at the time, located near Tropicana Field, made money at Rays games by parking cars on church property. She found it hectic, since she was responsible for so many foster kids. "So I said, my expertise is in food service _ I'm going to see what they need inside the dome."

Thomas met with service managers and arranged to operate several concession stands. She also spoke to her pastor about her plan to train youths and raise mission money at the ballpark. The pastor loved the idea. He has since retired, and Thomas moved to a new church, yet her mission is going strong.

At first, her own kids helped staff the stands. But a recent rule requiring staff to be at least 16 has limited their participation. Meanwhile, other teens _ and adults needed as supervisors and to serve alcohol _ have flocked to the concession mission. "I've learned how to cook, work with people," says Jerold Robinson, 16.

Thomas records how many hours each of her workers puts in. If a concession stand earns $6,000 in a night, Volume Services subtracts the tax, leaving about $5,700. Thomas then receives 10 percent of that amount, $570, and places 10 percent of that in the mission fund. That money helps people who are homeless, who have lost jobs, or who face medical crises. It also goes toward the goal of buying a building that would become the House of Praise and Blessings Church, and a center for the mission.

The remaining 90 percent is divided among the workers, who are paid by Thomas every week or so. A teen might make more than $100 for a homestand series.

Management likes Thomas' work and has hired her to supervise the club-level pantry operation as well. So, in addition to the concessions, she directs teenage runners who deliver food in the pricier seats.

It's one of the few times Thomas sits down at the Trop. "It's funny," she says. "In four years here, I've still never had time to see a game."

Maternal instincts

Thomas was mothering from the time she was a child. Her father and mother had 15 children in Mobile, Ala. After four boys were born, Mentha became the oldest of nine girls, with two more brothers along the way.

"Even my older brothers came to see me as a mom," she says. "I took care of everybody."

Thomas' mother had been forced to live with relatives as a child, and was pulled out of school at age 12 to work. "She was brilliant, though, and she educated herself," Thomas said.. "She told me she prayed so hard for a daughter, because she needed a friend and when I was born, she called me her godsend daughter. We were so close, almost like sisters."

At St. Elmore High School in Mobile, Thomas was a standout student, played coronet in the band, and excelled in sports.

She enrolled at Clark College in Atlanta, where, as a sophomore, she met a handsome senior named Albert Thomas. "She was so ladylike," he says. They married in 1959 when he graduated, right before he joining the Army and served in Germany. Thomas began her junior year at Clark, but left when her 9-month-old brother became ill after accidentally ingesting poison. She returned to Mobile to help her mother care for the infant.

Her brother gradually recovered and Thomas moved to St. Petersburg to live with her husband's family. She worked as an elevator operator until Albert Thomas returned in 1961, to start his career working with troubled youths.

They had their only biological child, a daughter named Stephanie, in 1969. Meanwhile, Mentha Thomas began a string of chef jobs _ the Sand Dollar, the Holiday Inn, the Port O' Call and the Don.

Thomas took time off only to bring her ailing mother to town and nurse her until her death from kidney failure in 1975. Five years later, she and Albert became full-time foster parents. "We took in kids who nobody wanted," she says.

After a few more restaurant jobs, Thomas had her fill by 1986. "I was working 18- to 20-hour days, with no retirement plan," she says.

So she went to work for the Pinellas County school system, managing food services first at the elementary level, then high school. At Gibbs, everyone knows Mentha Thomas _ students and staff.

"My own kids even call her grandma," says Gibbs achievement specialist Dottie Gillick. "We feel a very strong spiritual connection, and we support each other. My mom is dead, and my father lives far away, so she's become like a mother to me."

Gillick, who is white, adds: "I call her my mom. And she introduces me as her daughter. If people give her funny looks, she gives them a hard time."

Church

It is a Sunday morning in June, Father's Day. But the mother of the house is the one on the move, getting the children ready for church.

In many ways, Mentha's world revolves around Sundays. This is family day. It begins with church, and ends with a family outing to a local restaurant.

"People think I'm bringing a club, because I've got all these white kids and black kids and foreign kids," she says. "But this is my family."

Thomas is wearing her Sunday best, an elegant white hat and matching dress. She calls to her two youngest to shut off the Nintendo and come over for inspection. "Your hair is going everywhere but straight," she tells Chris, 8, as she applies hair spray.

All the kids but Joey are going to church this day, at a small house of worship called the New Life Outreach Center at 2800 41st St. N. Joey, who is 20 and has lived with the Thomases since he was 5, has to be at his job busing tables.

Before they leave, Janitra gives Albert Thomas, whom the kids call "Poppy," a Father's Day poem she has written. Poppy, 66, has had two strokes, the last in 1996, but he is his wife's support system _ waking at 5:30 a.m. on school days to lay out clothes, doing the family shopping, working in the yard, being a father figure to children who often have had none.

His eyes mist over as he reads the words.

"I walk through the rain to hide my tears. I sit in the dark because he's not here. A father that I should love is nowhere to be found. But here you are Poppy to help me come around. Happy Father's Day."

In moments, the big van is rolling. When it pulls up to the church, music pours from the inside, along with whoops, clapping and a revival-like atmosphere.

The children sit quietly as a band sings praise songs and a reverend preaches about salvation. Some fidget, some look bored. Most are clearly looking forward to the family dinner.

But Mentha Thomas stands amid her family, eyes closed, hands outstretched above them.

Family meeting

Being a foster parent _ or child _ can be tough.

Thomas sees several keys to making that relationship work: love, respect and communication. Every Monday, except when the Rays are home, she convenes a family meeting.

They gather in the neat, well-decorated living room of their eight-bedroom home (a builder converted their patio into four extra bedrooms).

On a recent Monday evening, Thomas starts by praising each of the children for an accomplishment. Joey has earned his GED. "He finished it with no problems, so we need to congratulate Joey," she says. The room fills with applause. She adds kudos because Joey has stopped picking on 11-year-old John.

Janitra gets a hand for finishing her GED and beginning pharmacy studies at PTEC, Michael for finishing middle school with excellent grades. In minutes, each child has received an ovation for something special they've done.

Then, the tone shifts. It's time for the children to discuss anything that is bothering them at home. "This is the time when we kick back and say things to make it better," she tells her kids. "We're all from different biological backgrounds. We all have to adopt each other to try to make it better."

First topic: John and Chris need to keep it down when Janitra is doing her summer school homework. If they don't, Thomas says she will pack up their TV and video games.

Isaiah talks about being bored and his annoyance that Chris, 8, keeps trying to pick fights. Thomas listens, then tells Chris to cool it: "You're not to put your hands on Isaiah, or I'll pull you out of camp, and you'll wind up in a room with me reading every day this summer."

Chris counters, "Isaiah, you think you're the boss of the Nintendo. You think you can just take away your game and say, "Oh, I'm done.' " Thomas has a solution: If Isaiah won't share his games, he shouldn't use the video console.

Michael, 14, is unhappy that John constantly bangs on the bathroom door when he's inside. Janitra agrees. "John does things like that because he seeks attention," Thomas says. "It's almost like, "You guys don't know I'm here.' Next time, just send John to me."

Ninety minutes later, the meeting ends. Thomas gives a pep talk, followed by hugs. Across the room on a sofa, Joey reflects.

"Growing up in foster care is going to be really hard, anywhere," he says. "You can get lonely. You can get confused. But my mom, she's a really good-hearted person. Both she and Poppy are. One thing about this place: If you come here, you're probably going to be staying."

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