Shirley McCarthy Faces Fight for Special Family


At 30 Lagoon avenue, strollers and tiny tot trucks have reserved parking at the foot of the front steps. Two signs - "Welcome to the Funny Farm" and "Be nice to your children because they will pick your nursing home" - hang from the front door, preparing newcomers for and reminding regulars of the unusual life led by the woman on the other side of the door.

Just inside, 70-year-old Shirley McCarthy's welcome is cut short by the need to correct two-year-old Phillip O'Neill, who reaches for his seven-month-old sister Kellie Ann. And with that, Shirley offers a smile as she slides down the couch and pats the cushion beside her.

This is Shirley McCarthy's life - comfortable chaos. The kind of commotion that only a house filled with 13 children, from toddlers to teens, can create, the kind of disarray that partially packed cardboard boxes exaggerate.

These days, Shirley's otherwise manageable chaos spirals out of control in the wake of news that her landlord is selling her home of 31 years.

"I've never lived like this before," Shirley says, looking around.

Within the walls of this modest ranch-style home, nearly 300 children learned to crawl, walk, talk, laugh and love. Shirley welcomed each one into her home for day or foster care, or adoption. Last year, the state Department of Social Services recognized Shirley's work here by naming her foster mother of the year.

Both 18-year-old Charley McCarthy - Shirley's shy and withdrawn daughter, adopted after suffering malnutrition and abuse at age four - and Jessica O'Neill - who, as a pregnant teenager, needed a home not just for herself but the two babies she would bear - found places within Shirley's patchwork family. And Shirley kept her door open to her biological daughter Tonia, who currently is battling lupus, and three grandchildren.

"She is the epitome of what we always say we want to be. She takes the broken children," says Myra Jones Romain, a friend and attorney who is helping Shirley sift through her mounting financial problems.

But it is Shirley who could use a little mending right now. A naturally petite woman, worry claimed too many pounds this last month, leaving her cheeks hollow and her pants baggy. Tears are never far from the surface, though she does her best to hide them from her children.

"Moving out of this house . . . I feel like my whole life is going," Shirley says.

With bills piling up and mouths to feed, news of the sale of the house is even harder to handle. Two operations in the last two years, along with an ongoing fight with diabetes, forced Shirley to all but cease her day-care service. Now she feeds 15, pays exorbitant utility bills and monthly rent of $1,000 with only her social security and the social service stipends she receives for some of the foster children.

Shirley manages only small payments toward the $2,400 balance on her electric bill, and only Kellie Ann's age prevents the electric company from pulling the plug on their service. Some of the teenagers pitch in to the family budget with money from their after-school jobs, but a weekly grocery bill of $300 absorbs their contributions.

Shirley has fought her fair share of battles in 70 years. Without finishing high school, she became a military wife, traveling the world with a husband who later became abusive. Their marriage faded after moving to the Vineyard, but despite not having his income, she took in and adopted more foster children.

But Shirley is not quite sure she can muster enough strength for the newest battle.

"I'm not a fighter. Why can't people just love one another?" she asks. "It's an awful feeling to not have anywhere to go - no family off-Island."

The Island community is not prepared to let Shirley leave them. Concerned friends set up a family home fund for Shirley at Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Bank. Shirley's church family at St. Augustine's vows to help in any way they can. And a nameless young woman appeared at her doorstep just before Christmas with a gift of $200.

Neil Estrella, of Edgartown, gave Shirley a Christmas card filled with the promise to pour her a house foundation if she secures a spot of land.

"She's done so much for me and so many other people, I'm glad to help her out," Mr. Estrella says.

Marc O'Donnell and Barry Stone of MV Electricians are finding tradesmen to donate their time to build Shirley and her family a home.

"If we step up to the plate, maybe a plumber, an insulator and a painter will as well," Mr. O'Donnell says. Mr. O'Donnell hopes suppliers will donate equipment or sell at cost.

"It's not just about Shirley - it's about the whole idea of what Shirley is," he adds.

While he feels certain tradesmen will stand behind Shirley, it will take more than bricks and mortar to relocate her family. On an Island where land prices climb well into the six figures, the project depends on someone donating a parcel of land.

"There is a way. There's never a shortage of people wanting to help," Mr. O'Donnell says.

While friends and strangers scramble to find a home for Shirley and her children, Shirley waits. Friends and family encourage her to get a nice one-bedroom apartment and scatter the children in various homes, but she refuses.

"I'm not going anywhere without my kids. I won't give up on them," she declares.

And it's Shirley's commitment to them that allowed Jessica to get her general educational diploma, enabled Charley to secure a loan for a used car and taught Kellie Ann how to clap.

"We always talk about how children are our future. Then, one comes along who isn't exactly what we'd hoped, and we push them aside," Ms. Romain says. "What makes Shirley different is that she really takes to heart that children are our future.

"Once she gets one through, she adopts another."