Sisters Joyce and Melanee Reese were perfectly happy 20 years ago, living in their Point Breeze home and taking care of their two sons.
But a neighbor who worked in foster care kept telling them how great they'd be at helping kids in need.
He insisted they'd be perfect and repeatedly mentioned how few black families there were in the system.
The women resisted for a couple years before finally relenting.
They got their very first placement, Angel, in September 1994. They had the baby for only a few months.
But then, on Oct. 27, 1994, 2-day-old Clarisa arrived.
A month and a half later, 3-month-old Christopher arrived.
And soon after came Christopher's older sister, Jessica, who was 2 at the time. And then Clarisa's younger brother, Donald, who was 3 months old.
"They just sort of became our children, and it just didn't feel right to turn our children over to anyone else," Joyce said.
So they adopted all of them.
About four years later, 3-month-old Henderson arrived. And six years after that, on Halloween, the Reese sisters got a call from his birth mother, asking them if they could take in his little sister, Taylor, who had been born that day.
In all, the Reese sisters are raising three sibling sets. The six children range in age from 8 to 19. Each of them came to the women with medical problems and special needs.
"Every last one of these kids was a battle," said Melanee, 59.
"In some kind of way," added Joyce, 61.
Clarisa weighed less than 4 pounds when she arrived, and Donald, who was just a few months old, would not let the women hold him.
Christopher, who slept for 23 hours a day when he first arrived, wasn't expected to live past six months. He's had to undergo several surgeries for prune belly syndrome, but at age 18 is now a strapping young man.
Last summer, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Henderson, who has mitochondrial myopathies, and the rest of the family, a weeklong trip to Orlando.
"It was something we would never ever, ever be able to do," said Joyce, who teaches in an after-school program in Wilkinsburg.
The sisters also have received a helping hand during the holidays from the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program, which is supported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund.
Donations to Goodfellows help to ensure that all children experience the joys of the season, even if their parents or caregivers are struggling to make ends meet.
Goodfellows and Toys for Tots provided gifts and other items to nearly 30,000 children last year. Tax-deductible contributions can be made using the coupon in today's newspaper or online at www.post-gazette.com.
Even though they took on children with significant needs, the sisters said it wasn't hard for them.
"They were helpless," Melanee said.
"They needed somebody to care, and we had enough to give," Joyce added. "Somebody had to do it."
For each child, the women spent countless hours tracking down medical records at various hospitals and finding specialists to care for them. When someone needed to make a trip to the emergency room overnight, the women took turns accompanying the sick child, and staying home with the others.
Kathye Sears, who once was a caseworker for the Reeses and then a therapist, has known them for 12 years.
"You have to have a lot of heart and passion, and you have to really understand you may not get the result you want," she said.
The sisters raised all the children the same way: Be polite, do your school work, don't be disruptive and be good citizens.
"I think people see what we're doing and appreciate them," Joyce said.
"We tried to give the kids a very well-rounded life experience," Melanee said.
The girls were enrolled in dance, and all of them play at least one instrument.
They took tennis and swimming lessons. One went to German language camp.
They all were active in the Wilkinsburg Baseball Association, where their uncle, David Reese, is the president.
As the women talk about the five different schools their children attend, Taylor comes spinning in to the room, practicing her pirouettes.
"She's learning how to do her spotting," Joyce said, as the happy little girl retrieved her shoes and socks to go to the batting cages with her uncle.
All of the kids alternate between calling the women "Mom," or by their first names.
"I call you 'mom' if I want something," said Christopher, as he readied their beagle/terrier dog, Simon, to go outside.
He, too, was a rescue.
In addition to their own children, Joyce's grandchildren, Cori, 14, and Zachary, 7, are often in the house.
Joyce deflects praise for what she and her sister have done, saying that they sometimes get frustrated with the kids, especially now as they get older.
"Teenagers need as much watching today as they did when they were toddlers," she said.
A piano that every one of the Reese children has learned to play sits in the entryway of the family's home.
On top of it, a small wooden sign reads, "Who are all these children, and why are they calling me mom?"
The Toys for Tots program will hold open houses this month to distribute toys to parents and guardians of needy children.
They will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Guardian Storage Solutions, 2839 Liberty Ave., Strip District. Parents and guardians should bring a photo ID for themselves, a birth certificate for each child (children up to age 12 are eligible) and proof of need -- welfare check stub, food stamp card or other proof of government assistance.
A list of contributors to the fund follows:
Today's total: $6,097 & Grand total: $31,267.45
Brad Amos, MD, PhD $1,000
Frederick N. Frank, Esq. $500
Mary & Keith Reabe $350
Donna Zaffy $200
In memory of TJ $200
In honor of Ruth & Fred Egler$150
Bev Honchorek $150
The Orie family $100
Sam and Paula Conte $100
Barbara & James Blackhurst$100
Frances L. Kelly $100
Mark A. Casey $100
Jeannine C. Meiksin $100
Patricia Loring $100
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lowe $100
In memory of Helen Knaell $100
Marc D. Levine $100
In memory of Ralph M. Yearick $100
Carrie S. Holstead $100
Leeanne Monteverde $100
John Burriss $100
James & Karen Sheppard $90
David P. Yundt $75
In memory of Vera & Hi Howard$50
Ken & Barb Pepperney $50
Karen & Steve Blass $50
John Polyak $50
In memory of Jack M. Jones $50
In memory of Barbara Ann Sullivan from Daniel Pagath $50
Linda Martik $50
Jay and Peg Brickner $50
James Skidmore $50
Joe and Ann Madia $50
In loving memory of George L. Smoulder $50
In loving memory of Elizabeth Beveridge $50
Jacquelyn Ridley $50
Russ and Laura Bracker $50
Lynn and Lou Naugle $50
Dawna Martich and Michael Egan $50
Diana Vahabzadeh $50
Clair Repper $40
Zarley and Tut $36
In memory of Mom & Dad $30
Theresa Mazzarese $25
In memory of dear friend Barb Duss; in honor of Ed & Jean Duss $25
Frank & Robin Almendinger $25
In memory of J.A.B. from Angeline R. Barthen $25
J. Barbara McKelway $25
In honor of Jilian & Nathan Sander $25
Chuck & Carmella Hallstein $25
Hilda Dax $25
In loving memory of Bill Gabriel & Family $25
In honor of Emma & Aiden $25
John & Patty Greeno $25
Ms. Grace Ostrowski $20
Lois Eck $20
Dorothy P. Holden $20
Ronald & Marie Snyder $20
C. M. Stellitano $20
In memory of loved ones by Karen Marburger $20
Big Mar $10
Margaret Miller $10
The Brown Boys -- Matthew, Michael, Dillon & Kevin $10
Thomas Haberman $10
Jennifer Rago $10
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com or 412-263-2620. First Published December 9, 2012 5:00 AM