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One big, unconventional family

Judy Brown was married when she was 20 years old and had five children by 30.

And they had lots of company: 15 foster children came through their home over the years.

Some stayed for a few days, others stayed for years. The last one, Tyler, is staying permanently. The Browns adopted him at age 3.

And there were more kids. When dad Paul worked for a government job-training facility, some of the program's inner-city graduates moved in with the family until they could save enough money to get a place of their own.

"When I was a kid, I thought our home life was normal," said daughter Natalie, 24, a graduate student. "I always had someone to play with and there was never a dull moment."

With so much going on, a good sense of humor goes a long way.

In fact, it's essential.

Son Nick, 27, a union plasterer, describes his mom's parenting style as "traditional with frequent reality-based breakdowns."

Judy wasn't one to sweat the small stuff, but everyone has their boiling point, especially with a house full of rambunctious kids.

"Raising the kids was all I did. At times I didn't have a car. My husband worked long hours and sometimes two jobs. Why didn't I think of that?" Judy said. "I think I was so busy from sunup to sundown I never stopped to think, 'This is crazy.'"

Still, even the meltdowns weren't so bad.

"One time she had to dig Luke out of a mud pit and she said, 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,'" Nick said.

A mud pit?

While the brothers were horsing around in fields near the house, daughter Jessica explains, Luke fell waist-deep into a sinkhole and the boys couldn't extract him.

"So they got my mom and she was swearing her head off trying to get him out," said Jessica, 31, a certified public accountant.

Instead of the traditional groundings and lectures, discipline in the family's North Tonawanda home was more creative.

As punishment, the kids were made to fill random holes in the yard with dirt or run laps around the house. When Luke, now 29 and an attorney, got caught throwing eggs at a neighbor's house, he was tasked with shoveling the man's driveway.

"The kids like to make fun of the old days," Judy said. "They like to bemoan their hand-me-downs and not being spoiled, but they all turned out pretty great."

Judy's secret to keeping her battery charged is "10-minute rests," where she sets the stove timer for 10 minutes and takes a nap on the couch.

"Then the timer goes off and she sleeps for another hour," Jessica said.

Jokes aside, the now-grown kids understand what it took to keep such a large and busy household together, and admire the sacrifices their mother made in opening their home to other children.

"As a kid, you never think about what it takes to let a child that you have raised go, you are just mad that you have to share your room," said Luke. "Now, as an adult and a parent, I couldn't imagine what it takes to raise someone else's children and then see them leave."

Letting go was certainly the hardest part for Judy and for the kids, especially knowing the children who had become like family were sometimes going back to abusive or neglectful homes.

"Sometimes my mom was raising kids from birth, then four years later she had to let them leave," Natalie said.

Many of the foster children were never heard from again.

But one boy, Aaron, rang the doorbell one day and said, "I think I lived here once."

Through it all, Judy's parenting philosophy has always been that tomorrow is another day.

"So if your kid puked on the new rug or she cracked up the car or everyone hates the dinner you made or you feel like you messed up big time or any other crazy thing that can happen with eight to 10 people in the house," Judy said, "you go to bed and you get up the next day and wipe the slate clean and try to make it a better and brighter day."