Family of 13 kids celebrates first Christmas

HEATHROW -- It is a few days before Christmas, and Gwyn and Bob Picerne are trying to gather the children for a holiday photo. When you have 13 kids -- 14, if you count the baby they have taken in as foster parents -- this is not so easy.

Chase, one of the “originals,” as Bob calls their two biological children, is mesmerized by a video game and has only fleeting contact with reality. Andrei, 22, and his sister Lida, 18, both adopted from Russia, are bickering over how long ago they came to the States -- though if they agreed on this, they would find something else to argue about.

The twins, 17-year-old Marvin and Martin, adopted this year after spending 13 years in Florida’s child-welfare system, are trying to rescue a baby squirrel whose home was inadvertently disturbed by the landscapers.

Gwyn Picerne, 46, shakes her head and smiles knowingly. “Sweet pandemonium,” she says.

It has become her favorite expression.

Here in their sprawling, 11-bedroom home in Heathrow, there is always a certain quotient of chaos. In the past year, the Picernes have added six children to their family.

“Really, we never set out to have 14 children,” says Bob, 53. “They were just sort of dropped in our laps.”

His wife nods. “I think people who are led to reach out need to reach out,” she says. “It’s too easy to just walk by.”

It was a lesson she first learned on a Christmas long ago.

Like her husband, Gwyn Picerne grew up in a family with six children. Unlike her husband, she grew up in poverty.

When she was 4, her father was killed in a car accident, and after that Gwyn’s mother raised the children largely on her own, sometimes working three jobs. When Gwyn was 9, her baby sister needed open-heart surgery. The girl’s long-term survival chances were slim.

Gwyn’s mother told her other children there would be no Christmas presents that year -- save for the “gift” of having their sister come home from the hospital, if she was strong enough.

But one night, about a week before Christmas, the family came home from a hospital visit to find a bounty of presents piled higher than the door of their double-wide mobile home. Gwyn’s mother stepped from the car and fell to her knees, crying. “Who did this?” she sobbed gratefully.

Not only were there toys for all the children; there was food for a feast, too. A local church had rallied its parishioners, who adopted the family for Christmas. Even better, her sister came home for Christmas and lived to defy doctors’ dire predictions.

Gwyn remembers thinking, “Someday, I want to make people feel the way we do tonight.”

An Italian-American and a Baptist meet in a bar. It’s not a setup for a joke; it’s the story of how Bob met Gwyn. Three years later, the couple eloped to Las Vegas.

Then came two beautiful, healthy children and two successful careers -- his in real-estate development, hers in insurance.

Despite their fortunes, Gwyn felt something was missing -- something she found in a reawakened relationship with God. As her faith blossomed, she says, God began to show them children who needed them.

The first was 15-year-old Davey Welch, the son of a family friend they happened to see at a funeral. The Picernes were stunned to learn that the boy had moved out of the family home and dropped out of school.

“He had become this thug,” Gwyn says, “and he just thought that was his life.”

Yet after a long talk, Bob persuaded the boy to move into their home and return to school.

“I was very young at the time,” says Chandler, 16. “But I remember that immediately I thought of him as my brother.”

Next came Andrei and Lida. Someone at their church had given a talk about a boy in a Russian orphanage who needed a home. After much prayer, Bob says, “God laid it on our hearts” to adopt the teen, who had a sister in the orphanage, too. They couldn’t leave her behind.

Then there was 6-week-old Natalie, whose Vietnamese mother approached Gwyn in a nail salon after hearing about the adoption of the Russian children. “My boyfriend is throwing me out of the house, and I have nowhere else to live. I’m homeless,” the woman said. “Please, can you take my baby?”

Next was 1-day-old Hannah, who turned out to have a nearly 3-year-old sister in foster care Ally. The girls’ mother, who is ill, wanted the Picernes to adopt both.

And in the past year, the family has been joined by Kyrique, 8; his brother, Ezekiel, who just turned 2; 6-year-old Ezra; and the twins, Martin and Marvin.

The twins had been in foster care most of their lives, and for most of that time they had been separated.

They met their future parents at an adoption-matching event that the Picernes -- who had started their own Christian adoption agency by that point -- hosted at their Heathrow home, with its water slide and housekeepers and curved dual staircase.

“At first, I thought they were just regular rich people,” Marvin says. “I figured they wanted to make themselves look good.

And then I saw him pick up Hannah, and she called him Daddy, and I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ It turned out that he was real.”

It helped that Hannah, like Marvin and Martin, is African-American, while Gwyn and Bob are white. What Marvin saw was that, in this family, it didn’t matter.