PATRICIA SCHWARTZ feels "the empty nest blues" creeping up on her.
Two daughters are married, one son is in North Carolina, another leaves for college soon.
"I encourage them to go and be on their own, but I don't enjoy it" when they do, says Patricia Schwartz. "When they are out of the house, you wonder what they are doing, if they need anything . . ."
Her nest is far from empty. She and her husband James, a Baltimore County police officer, have five daughters ages 12 to 23 at home.
For 26 years, Patricia Schwartz says, she has "tried to be there" for her nine children. They've noticed.
"James and Patricia Schwartz . . . are two of the most wonderful people there are . . . two very loving, caring, giving and special people," wrote their daughter, Tina Schwartz Heffler, when she nominated them to be "Maryland's Most Beautiful Parents."
Now the title officially belongs to the Baltimore County couple and other parents. They are among individuals and couples selected by local health departments and the "Maryland You Are Beautiful" program for being effective parents, often under hardship. They will be honored this weekend as part of the state's first Kids' Convention at Towson State University.
Some of the winners are natural parents, some adoptive, some foster. Some are friends or relatives caring for children whose parents wouldn't or couldn't.
From more than 1,000 nominations, 24 families were chosen, one from each county and Baltimore. Here are some of them:
Linda Willis isn't a parent, but she says she sure feels like a mother to her nephew, Lawrence Bellamy, 13, who has lived with her for four years.
"He's got to come first. If I don't care for him, nobody else will," says Willis.
She and Lawrence have been living together on Oliver Street in East Baltimore since 1987. Lawrence's parents had entrusted his care to his grandmother -- Willis' mother -- since he was 3. But his grandmother became too ill to care for him.
Two weeks after her mother died, Willis, 32, took Lawrence into her home. She is his legal guardian.
In his 3 1/2 -page letter, Lawrence writes: "I didn't pick her to be my parent although she chose to raise me, [for] which I'm very much grateful. She provides for me even when it gets hard for her. I know that I'm the first in her life.
"If she could be chosen to be the most beautiful parent it would be the most greatest thing for me because I know that she deserves it. If she doesn't get chosen, she's still number one in my heart."
Lawrence nominated his aunt for "beautiful" parenthood after seeing a television announcement about the awards. He didn't tell her. After working on a nomination letter alone, Lawrence called a friend, city police officer Laron Wilson, to ask for help.
"The thoughts were his," says Wilson, who met Willis and Lawrence when he worked in their neighborhood and has remained a family friend. Wilson helped the youngster with phrasing and spelling, and says he is "really pleased that Linda got the nomination. She's really sacrificed for him."
Willis, who is separated from her husband, concedes, "It hasn't been easy. I've been going through a lot of hard times."
When Lawrence had problems in school and his grades fell, Willis quit her job to spend more time with him.
"I wanted him to know I loved him," she says.
Willis also wants other things for Lawrence.
She wants him "to be a good person, not to always take, take, take and never give nothing in return." She wants him to do well in school. "School is for learning, not for playing," Willis tells her nephew. She wants him to stay off the street, away from its bad influences. "I want him to be the best Lawrence he can be."
Good parenting, Willis says, is wrapped up in love. "You have to have a lot of love and a lot of understanding and respect."
After Barbara Mallonee's fourth child was born, her doctor told her she shouldn't have any more children. Mallonee was disappointed.
"I would have had a dozen of my own," says the Cape St. Claire resident.
Instead, she and her husband, Gordon, adopted a fifth child, became legal guardians for two more youngsters, and, as foster parents for the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services, opened their home to at least 85 children over nearly 25 years.
At 58, Barbara Mallonee is today a foster mother to four children ages 19 months to 3 years. They're all in diapers. Her adopted son, 16, and a 22-year-old foster son are at home, too.
Many of the youngsters that the Mallonees care for have special needs resulting from disabilities, neglect or abuse. The 3-year-old came to the Mallonees' home when he was only weeks old, the child of a drug abuser. Now, "he's a beautiful, happy little boy," she says. "It's so gratifying to see what you can do with them . . . with a lot of love and care."
Barbara Mallonee has cared for children with cerebral palsy, with spina bifida, with Downs Syndrome, with severe brain damage.