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'A child needs a mother,' says York foster mom of 86 kids

The kids came as infants, toddlers, preschoolers.

Boys and girls, white and black and all the other colors of the rainbow, from teens down to diapers.

Kids in need of immediate emergency foster homes, or short-term care, or long-term family.

For the past 18 years, the one, the only, Annie Mae Zirkle and her husband, Sam, took them all in -- 86 kids in all.

"A child needs a mother," said Annie Mae, 72, retired from a lifetime as a spinner in the Cannon cotton mills of York and Clover.

"A mother -- and a home; that's where I come in," said Sam, 77, the husband of 54 years whose lifetime of work was 43 years as a machine operator at the long-gone Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., also known as the Bleachery.

One foster child stayed as little as four hours. Others stayed for years. One time, they had 10 foster kids in the house at the same time. Another time, four siblings.

A pair of sisters, Carrie Cales and Louise Dean, came 15 years ago and never left.

"Plain and simple, she's my mom," said Louise, now 25. "Many of the littler kids call her 'Granny.' But she's Mom and Grandmother all rolled into one."

Just this past week, South Carolina named the Zirkles the state's Foster Family of the Year. Even today, the Zirkles have a 5-year-old boy in their home as a foster child.

"Because they are the warmest, best people in the whole world," said Carrie, now a 29-year-old mother herself who was given away in marriage by Sam Zirkle.

In York, and at York County's Department of Social Services, the Zirkles have achieved legendary, near mythical status.

"Incredible," said Lynn Wallace, who runs DSS foster care in York County. "Good luck trying to catch Annie Mae. She's always on the go."

Although they have three grown children of their own, and a gaggle of grandkids and great-grands, the Zirkles have always had room for more in the big eight-passenger van Annie Mae drives around.

Annie Mae has said umpteen times at 3 a.m. over the phone to a DSS worker with frightened, neglected children in her care: "Bring them all. I'll leave the front porch light on for you."

And come they have, these children with nowhere else to go, for 18 years to the little blue house where a child saw a vision of what a mother or grandmother is supposed to be -- Annie Mae, gray hair shining, arms open, kitchen smelling of biscuits and chicken and dumplings and love that oozed from every pore.

"A child needs love, plain and simple," Annie Mae said. "Every child needs a mother. Boys, especially, need a dad.

"We try to give them what they need for as long as they are here. If that is years, all the better."

'It is love in here'

The Zirkles even adopted two children who came and never left. One of them, Melissa Zirkle, now 25, has lived with the Zirkles for 19 years. A boy, Jacob Zirkle, who arrived as an infant, is now 16.

"This is my home," said Melissa, who now works in child care herself. "It has been home to so many, and still is.

"It is love in here."

The family plays no favorites, sets tough rules, takes all to church. Sam handles allowance, always has, in little bags for each child if the chores get done.

"One time I had 18 bicycles here, because with all the kids, grandkids, foster kids, we needed 18 bicycles," Sam said. "When a child comes here, he's part of the family. He is a Zirkle as long as he is in my house. The girls, they are Zirkles, too.

"We are all Zirkles."

The former foster kids call, or come by and bring their own families after they have grown. Nobody forgets Annie Mae and Sam.

"You give a child, every child you can, what they need from your heart," Annie Mae said. "They need guidance and training. They need love.

"Once we get them, even if they don't stay, they are our kids."

Annie Mae has cried a million tears as the children have gone back to families, or other places, over the years.

Part of reality for foster parents is that most children eventually leave. But the broken heart over a child leaving is always replaced by another child who needs a mother -- even if the mother is temporary.

"Mother's Day will be a ton of people here," said adopted daughter Melissa. "They all come back to see Momma, Granny, whatever they call her. Christmas? Forget about it. There isn't room to walk in here for all the foster kids who come back home."

So still today, on Mother's Day, at age 72, right there in the middle of children who need a mother, will be York's Annie Mae Zirkle.

She will rise before the sun and start to bake. She will cook and fry and braise, steam and boil and sauté.

Uncountable children of the 86 who were foster children in her home will come by.

"They come because everybody loves Pawpaw and Granny," said Carrie. "They always loved us. They still do."

WANT TO HELP?

To learn more about becoming a foster parent, call York County DSS at 803-909-7446 or 803-684-2315.

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