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Peggy Thomas, of Walnut Creek, poses with children that she has adopted and raised on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in Walnut Creek, Calif. Left to Right, Suzy Thomas, 17, of Kazakhstan, Russia, Sam Thomas, 18, of Kazakhstan, Russia, Sarah Thomas, 9, of Thailand, Isaiah Thomas, 17, of Kazakhstan, Russia, Alona Thomas, 13, of Russia, Crystal Humphrey, of Vallejo, and Jude Thomas, 13, of Russa. Crystal Humphrey was raised by Thomas but never officially adopted. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

For decades, Peggy Thomas has opened her home and her heart to foster children while also raising her own two children and a nephew.

Eight years ago, she began adopting orphans from Kazakhstan, Russia and Thailand whose initial adoptions by other American families didn't work out. After adopting her seventh orphan child, Thomas learned that her 3-month-old grandson, Logan, had a rare, terminal illness called SMARD -- spinal muscular atrophy with respiratory distress.

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For nine months, she and her daughter Danielle Terborg spent hours each day at Children's Hospital Oakland caring for the boy and getting to know the staff in the neonatal intensive care unit. During that time, Thomas left her mark on the hospital facility and staff -- by hiring an artist to paint a Mediterranean Sea mural on the walls of what used to be a dismal conference room. This is often where families hear bad news; it's where Thomas and her daughter met with doctors to learn the heartbreaking news that Logan might not live until his second birthday.

Thomas said she wanted to comfort her daughter and everyone else who grapples with such horrific news in that tiny, windowless, bleak space.


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"As I looked around the room," Thomas said, "I couldn't help but wonder how many families have had this exact life-changing moment as they are being told of their children's diagnoses."

She enlisted the help of her children to raise money for the mural, making it a home schooling project. Muralist Morgan Bricca said she was impressed by Thomas' commitment to the project and to her family.

"She was fearless and diligent in focusing her energy to bring light and beauty to where she saw it was needed," Bricca said. "This dear, dear angel does more acts of kindness before breakfast than I do in a whole month. She is a lightning bolt of grace, full of grounded, loving energy and not shy about breaking her guitar out and sharing songs with the children in the NICU, at a senior care home and even with me as I painted my mural."

As an adoptive mother, Thomas has taken in children from "disrupted adoptions" -- who grew up in isolation and had trouble adjusting to American life -- and embraced them as her own, teaching them by example with care, compassion and love.

Since Logan came home from the hospital a few months ago, Thomas also spends several nights a week by his side, because he needs round-the-clock care.

"I average about four hours sleep a day," Thomas said. "We're all adapting, and he's getting bigger and fat and chubby. The kids all help."

Thomas' children said they appreciate her humor and giving spirit. Thomas, 59, also raised Crystal Humphrey, who is now 31, since she was 12.

"She is full of wisdom and advice," said Humphrey, who is a nurse. "My life would have not turned out the way it did if she hadn't taken me in. She made it important that you grew up to do something with meaning."

Thomas' adopted children said she inspires them to help others. Isaiah, 17, said he appreciates his mom's creativity and energy.

"She's always on the go," he said while he and his siblings visited Logan with Thomas last week. "She's always helping people. I appreciate that, and I help as well. It's just great to have her as my mother."

Thomas connects to her children through art, music and animals, they said. She home-schools them through the Visions in Education charter program, which provides online instructional materials that enable them to learn at their own pace. They also attend a church youth group, Isaiah said.

Thomas gives her children the space they need, while providing a supportive family environment, said George Leonard, executive director of The Family Network Inc., a nonprofit organization that helped facilitate Thomas' adoptions.

"She takes in kids that other parents can't do," Leonard said. "A lot of times, kids come with problems. She knows attachment disorder. She doesn't expect from them what the average family expects. And in the end, they relax, and they're able to learn."

Children who have been abandoned by their parents and mistreated by their caretakers often don't trust adults, Leonard said.

"What's beautiful about Peggy is she's already raised her own children," Leonard said. "She doesn't demand that the children be all that trusting. She has fun with them, she laughs with them and she gradually allows their openness to come out. She really is a gift to the children. She gives of herself, but she doesn't push intimacy. She's able to allow them just to relax and not to be under pressure -- and that way they can just start to blossom."

Danielle Terborg said her mom is eclectic and eccentric.

"She's a free spirit," she said. "She likes to think out of the box. She likes to defy the odds. She hates to be told, 'No.' "

Faith and fate play huge roles in Thomas' life, Crystal added.

"She feels everything is God's will," Crystal said. "Everything she does has a purpose."

HOMETOWN HERO
Name: Peggy Thomas
Age: 59
Hometown: Walnut Creek
Claim to fame: Has taken in orphan children from Russia, Kazakhstan and Thailand after their first American adoptions didn't work out. Commissioned a mural for a conference room at Children's Hospital Oakland, where she and her daughter learned that her grandson had a terminal illness. Also makes matching mother and baby blankets for families at hospital and now helps cares for her grandson a few nights a week, so he can live at home instead of in the hospital.
More information about Visions in Education charter school materials for home schooling families is at www.viedu.org. Details about the Family Network nonprofit adoption organization is at www.adopt-familynetwork.com. For additional information about Thomas and her family, go to the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities.
Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.