Almost five years ago, Amy Waldroop came as close as she ever has to realizing her dream of having a carefree, normal life.
She was about to graduate from Villa Park High School and had been offered a scholarship to UCLA, thanks to her stellar performances in the classroom and on the track team.
Then Waldroop was called into a school administrator's office. She was told social workers were planning to remove her younger siblings from their grandmother's home.
Waldroop found herself flooded with memories of her chaotic childhood, a world of living out of cars and motels, of being shuttled from foster family to foster family or--when nobody wanted Amy, her sister and three brothers--to a juvenile detention center.
It was a world that revolved around her mother, who lost her battle against drugs again and again, stumbling in and out of prison, in and out of their lives.
When Waldroop was 12, she went to live with her grandmother, later joined by her younger siblings. That arrangement lasted until a social worker discovered that her mother was making unsupervised visits to the home and moved to put the children in foster care.
On that day in 1993, toward the end of her senior year, Waldroop made a decision: She would take care of her three younger brothers and sister herself. She was 17 years old.
"There was no way I was going to let them grow up that way," she said.
A judge granted Waldroop emancipation from the foster care system, and a high school counselor proposed that Waldroop petition juvenile court to become her siblings' legal guardian. Two days after her high school graduation, she received the guardianship. For her brothers and sister, there would be no more living with strangers in strange homes.
For her, there would be no college scholarship, no heading off to UCLA.
"I gave up the scholarship that day and got the kids that night," Waldroop said.
At 23, Waldroop is single-handedly raising her three brothers--Adam, 13, Joey, 11, and Tony, 8--as well as her 3-year-old son, Donavin. For a short time, she also cared for a sister, now 18, who went to live with an aunt. She had a fiance, but he was overwhelmed at the prospect of raising a group of boys and left two weeks after she gave birth to Donavin.
Many people told Waldroop she was wasting her talents, spoiling her chances for a promising future. She didn't listen.
"People ask me, 'What are you doing with your life?' " she said. "I look at it as I'm saving other lives."
Waldroop had already proven responsible beyond her years. She started working at 12, sweeping floors at a beauty salon for $2 an hour. In high school she often held two part-time jobs, working at a Coco's restaurant and Conroy's Flowers and as a nurse's assistant at UC Irvine Medical Center.
She saved $10,000, money she hoped would buy her freedom. Instead it went for furniture, clothes, the down payment on a car, and everything else she needed to start a home.
"My brothers think of me as Mom, although they call me Amy," Waldroop said. "So does Donavin, but he's learning to call me Mom."
Waldroop cares for all of them in a rented three-bedroom townhome in Anaheim while holding down a full-time job as a receptionist at a title company in Orange.
"At first I was scared, but they're really good kids," she said. "Now they're like my own."
Waldroop has given the boys something she never had: a stable home, one with beds and toys and family photographs on the walls.
Her achievement in the face of enormous obstacles has not gone unnoticed. She recently received PacifiCare's Touch a Life Award, the highest honor given to a former foster child by the Southern Area Fostercare Effort, an Orange-based nonprofit agency that recruits foster parents for eight counties.
Antoinette Bailey, senior social worker with Orange County Children and Family Services in Orange, nominated Waldroop for the award because of "her willingness to put aside her own desires to care for her siblings and how hard she works to make ends meet and have as normal a life as possible."
While it's not uncommon for another family member to step in and take care of foster children, usually the guardian is an older relative.
"To have a sibling become a guardian is a rarity," Bailey said.
Bailey handles cases in which at least one child in the family was exposed to drugs while in the womb. She's the social worker for Waldroop's three brothers and has seen them thrive under Waldroop's care.
"They're really longing for some structure," she said.
When Waldroop walked to the podium at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena to receive her award and $1,000 prize, the audience gave her an unprecedented standing ovation.
Most of the award money went to buy beds and clothes for the boys, but Waldroop did splurge on one item for herself: a rocking chair for her bedroom. It's one of the few places she can go for a few minutes' rest.