LINCOLN — Christmas came to Aunt Tiny's home long before the checks, the gifts and the well-wishes rolled in.
It came in the form of seven children who urgently needed a home.
It came when the diminutive state worker — named Tiny because of her 4-foot-11 height — collected them from foster and group homes after their father left them at a hospital.
It came suddenly, with a car and apartment scarcely big enough for Tiny, let alone the kids.
But this kind of a Christmas nevertheless came to Phyllis "Tiny" McCaul, a grandmother nearing retirement. McCaul's open-hearted response sparked a wave of community support that continues three years later. Generous contributors to The World-Herald's Goodfellows charity have given more than $27,000 to help Aunt Tiny and the kids.
"The only thing I'm short on," McCaul said recently, "is a unicorn."
That wasn't the case in 2008, when Gary Staton invoked a then-new state law that allowed parents to leave their children in the care of the state without prosecution. The law, called safe haven, was designed for parents of newborns, but it had no age limit. Now the law is limited to children younger than 30 days.
In all, 36 Nebraska children, most of them teenagers, were left at hospitals.
Among them were nine Statons, ages 17 to 1. Their mother had died a year earlier of a brain aneurysm, a month after giving birth to her 10th child. Their father, who leaned on the oldest, then 18, struggled mightily. Overcome with the financial and emotional responsibility, he gathered his youngest nine children at Creighton University Medical Center.
Then Staton walked away.
She had been sitting in her rocking chair in a basement apartment in Lincoln that she shared with a son when a relative called one September night in 2008, crying: "He did it. Gary gave up the kids."
McCaul's immediate reaction?
"I'll take them all."
She hopped into her car, drove to Omaha and spent a few days rounding up the children. The two oldest boys, Jessie and Dakota, decided to stay in Omaha with their guardian. McCaul took the youngest seven home.
They were: Cheyenne, 15; Makayla, 14; Kennedy, 11; Shawnee, 10; Levi, 7; Justice, 6; and Willow, just over a year old.
She had to find a bigger place immediately. She had to find beds. She had to go to court, meet with schools, find counselors and collect enough clothes and supplies.
This was far from easy, and McCaul's state salary and eventual foster care stipend hardly covered the cost.
The challenges deepened McCaul's resolve, and she moved forward with adoption. Six of the seven children agreed to be adopted, in August 2009. Middle child Kennedy was the lone holdout; he later disclosed to his great-aunt that he didn't want to become part of another family that he thought would break up.
But Kennedy came around, and in November of that year, the 12-year-old gave his approval and the adoption went through.
"So," he said to McCaul following the court hearing, "what are we going to do, Mom?"
Kennedy meant: How are we going to celebrate?
But the question has resonated more deeply.
What are we going to do when the four-bedroom apartment is too small? What are we going to do when I get real mad? What are we going to do when the car dies?
McCaul has fielded those questions and more and appears to handle each with love, humor and a fervent will to do right by the kids.
This has meant happy things, like a new place to live: a rental house with way more space. Or money for Cheyenne, now an 18-year-old Lincoln High junior, to go on a class trip to Florida this coming spring.
It has meant tough choices, like undoing her adoption of Kennedy so that, as a ward of the state, he can get the help he needs at Boys Town, where he now lives.
"I'm not giving up on him," McCaul said. "He's just been traumatized a lot."
It has meant the constant but familiar juggle of parenting: taking Levi and Justice to Cub Scouts; getting extra help for Willow, who has some speech delays; watching Shawnee, who overnight went from little girl to teenager; encouraging Makayla to learn to cook; including oldest child Amoria, who is expecting her second child, and oldest sons Jessie, an expectant father, and Dakota, who wants to enter the military.
It also means folding in Gary, their father, who is living at a Lincoln motel with his pregnant girlfriend and working for a chemical-removal firm. He visits the children in Lincoln every week.
McCaul retired from her job working as a liaison in mental health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. But concerns about her own health insurance needs plus the need for a salary got her back to work in the same field for Region V Systems.
The extra income supplements the adoption subsidies she receives from the state.
But it doesn't cover all the bases.
That's where generous donors have come in.
Through Goodfellows, readers have been helping McCaul and the children. In 2009, after the family was featured during the campaign, donations earmarked for her totaled $16,145. In 2010, they gave $4,200. And this year so far, they have given $7,520.
The money has gone, in part, toward replacing a donated minivan with a blown gasket.
When another Goodfellows check was sent to McCaul in November, "I thought 'Wow! Great! That's Thanksgiving! I can get two turkeys now.' "
Recently a check for $4,000 arrived.
"I looked at (the check) and was sitting at the computer and I go 'Ohmygosh!'" McCaul said.
Cheyenne asked her what was wrong.
"And I said, 'It's a good Ohmygosh,'" McCaul said. "I just put it in the bank."
Part of the money, McCaul said, will go toward Cheyenne's trip.
Christmas, as it has been in the past several years, is gearing up to be a present-crazed family affair.
"Our Christmas is going to be fine," she said. "We're going to have paper all over the place and I'm going to be too tired, and Cheyenne will do her traditional mush-slush, something she makes with marshmallows, and she'll want to cook the dinner. The only thing I'm short is a unicorn."
It's what Willow has asked for and McCaul can't find one. Yet.
She's optimistic that an even more elusive-seeming thing, the children's future, will turn out OK.
"The kids are going to grow up just fine," she said. "We've got problems, but they'll make it. I can see them making it."
Kennedy, too. McCaul has seen Kennedy be creative, be athletic, work with computers.
This will be a tough Christmas for him, because he can't come home. But she said she will never leave him behind.
"Kennedy will make it," she said. "He's got no other choice. I'm his mother now."
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