Mary Thomas was surprised when she found a note pinned to her door telling her she had been selected as Howard County's Most Beautiful Parent.
"I'm not beautiful, and I don't think taking care of my grandchildren is out of the ordinary," said the 65-year-old grandmother of 12 from Columbia.
Thomas was one of 24 people representing each county and Baltimore City at the Maryland's Most Beautiful Parent statewide recognition ceremony yesterday at Towson State University. Thomas also was presented a plaque last Sunday at the Howard County Fair.
A retired cookat Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the mother of seven sons, she was recognized for her efforts to house, feed, clothe and provide religious instruction for five of her grandchildren, who have been left in her care for almost a year. She has managed the task despite a 1981 stroke that left her with a walking disability.
Two weeks ago, the children's parents, who Thomas said have been having problems, moved in with her too. Thomas and the family have been lookingfor new living arrangements since her rental home was sold to a developer.
"If I raised seven of my own, you know I did a good job with my grandchildren -- probably a better job than with my own," Thomassaid.
"Who else would take care of them? I didn't want them in foster homes."
She arranged for local pastors to come to her home topray with the family and talk to the children.
For the last two years, Thomas also has volunteered at the county Head Start program three to four days a week. If a bus wasn't available to take Thomas to the Head Start center, she would walk the quarter of a mile with the aid of a cane.
Thomas, who doesn't have a phone, learned she had been chosen the county's Most Beautiful Parent from Sue Walker, the county Social Services parent involvement coordinator who knew Thomas through Head Start and nominated her for the award.
"The teachers there all felt she was deserving of this recognition," Walker said. "One told me how Mary volunteers at the drop of a hat, even if she's busy, even when not asked. She was also the chairperson of the class. She came to evening meetings even though she had other kids at home.
"I never ran into a more dedicated parent. Considering her handicap, she is really exceptional."
This fall, Thomas will again volunteer her services to Head Start.
"I like working around children," she said. "I told them to call me if they needed me."
Thomas' energies extend well beyond her family.
"Mary organizes fund-raising dinners, all of the children's programs, Christmas plays and choir rehearsals at Brown's (United Methodist) Chapel," said daughter-in-law Barbara Johnson.
Eight parents in Howard County were nominated for the honor.
Each parent had to be at least 18 years old, a county resident and the child's primary care-giver for six months or more. In addition, a nominee had to "demonstrate thoughtful attention, energy and resourcefulness in parenting," said Dr. Joyce Boyd, county healthofficer.
"We wanted to showcase families who overcame obstacles and utilized community and state resources available to them."
The project was coordinated by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in partnership with each of the state's 24 local health departments.
A 10-member committee of representatives from the county public information office, youth division, Police Department, Head Start, PTA Council and Columbia Business Exchange unanimously selected Thomas,who was characteristically pragmatic about the whole business.
"We had our ups and downs," she said.
"But I saw to it that they didn't go hungry or anything like that. Sometimes it got to me, but it'smy duty and I don't mind. I know they would do the same for me."