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In Uganda, American Becomes Foster Mom To 13 Girls

Four years ago, Katie Davis was homecoming queen at her high school in Tennessee. Today, she cares for 13 abandoned girls at her home in Uganda. (Courtesy of Stylianos Papardelas)

Four years ago, Katie Davis was homecoming queen at her high school in Brentwood, Tenn. She had a yellow convertible and planned to study nursing in college.

But those plans changed just a little. Today, she's in Uganda, sharing her home with 13 orphaned or abandoned girls, ages 2 to 15. Davis is the legal guardian or foster mother for all of them, and hopes to one day adopt them.

"I think that's definitely something that I was made for," said Davis, 22, a devout Christian who idolizes Mother Teresa. "God just designed me that way because he already knew that this is what the plan was for my life — even though I didn't."

Davis traveled to Uganda after her high school graduation in 2007, but saw it as a temporary move before starting college back in the United States.

She started teaching kindergarten at an orphanage in a small village near the town of Jinja. One night, in January 2008, a mud hut down the road from the orphanage collapsed on three small AIDS orphans during a rainstorm. One of the girls, Agnes, then 9 years old, was taken for medical treatment.

"I was in the hospital, and I asked Mommy whether if I can live with her, and she said, 'yes,' " Agnes recalled.

Davis couldn't find any living relatives willing to take any of the girls, and she refused to send them to an overcrowded orphanage.

"The workers are always changing," Davis said of the orphanages. "Even if you form a relationship with one of the aunties or mommas, or whatever they call them at the orphanage, that momma might leave."

Davis then rented a house to accommodate the three girls. Over the next 18 months, 10 more girls moved in. All had been abandoned or abused, or had watched their parents wither away from AIDS.

The youngest girl, Patricia, now 2 years old, was literally given to Davis by an HIV-positive mother who had 11 other children.

"My first instinct is not, 'Oh, a baby — let me adopt it!' Because I think, best-case scenario, they're raised in Uganda by Ugandans," said Davis. "But knowing there is nowhere else for them to go, I don't find myself capable of sending them away."

Everyday Challenges

Getting those 13 girls to sit down at the breakfast table is just the first of many hurdles Davis faces daily.

On a recent day, after rounding up the kids, Davis sat at the head of the table in a gray tank top and plaid boxer shorts, with her long brown hair pulled into braided pigtails. The girls then began to pray in unison. "Dear Jesus, thank you for food ... "

Davis is well-known in Jinja, where she drives her family around town in a 13-passenger minivan. She can apply to formally adopt the girls after serving as their caregiver for three years.

But not everyone supports her.

By law, Davis is too young to adopt in Uganda, said child welfare officer Caroline Bankusha. The rules say an adoptive parent must be at least 25 years old, and at least 21 years older than the child being adopted.

Apart from the age issue, Bankusha also disapproved of Davis taking care of so many children.

"Unless the children are placed under a children's ministry or children's home, which she can start, otherwise it is really bad for someone to have more than five children," she said.

Bankusha conceded that there's a legal loophole that allows judges to make exceptions in the "best interests of the child."

Davis said she has done everything by the book and is the court-appointed caregiver for all of the girls.

The oldest girl, 15-year-old Prossy, says it's certainly in her best interest to stay with Davis.

"I feel like she's really my mother," Prossy said, "because she shows me love and I feel like, yes, this is my mom."

Launching A Nonprofit

Davis has also started a nonprofit organization called Amazima Ministries. With support from U.S. donors, Amazima helps 400 children go to school, provides community health programs and feeds more than a thousand children five days a week. Davis is the director, and the job supports her and her family.

As she washed her two youngest girls in the bathtub, David explained why she has taken on so much.

"People definitely ask me why so many? I don't know," she said. "These are the children that God brought to my door."

Even her own mother, Mary Pat Davis, had questions about what Davis was doing.

"A part of me thinks, gosh, is she giving a part of her life up at such a young age, taking on so much responsibility?" Mary Pat Davis said. "But my heart knows that she's so happy."

Mary Pat Davis now visits Uganda for a couple of months each year to help her daughter care for the Ugandan girls.

Katie Davis said she hopes to get married and have biological children someday. But right now, she has no plans to move back to the United States.

She did return briefly in the fall of 2008 and enrolled in nursing college, fulfilling a promise to her parents. But she quickly realized she missed the Ugandan kids too much. She dropped out and moved back.

"I can't imagine that I would ever be able to afford to raise this many children in America," she said. "We like our life, and we like our community."

At the end of another long day, Davis herded her girls off to bed and tucked them in, providing a glimpse of why she has stayed.

"I love you, Mom," said one of the girls.

"I love you too, babe," Davis said. "Tell your sisters night-night."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host: Four years ago, Katie Davis was homecoming queen at her high school in Brentwood, Tennessee. Today, the 22-year-old is a single mother of 13 - 13 girls in Uganda. So why would an American teenager trade in her yellow convertible and college plans to become a stay-at-home mom in Africa? Bonnie Allen has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

KATIE DAVIS: Okay, time for breakfast. Helen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD'S VOICE)

DAVIS: Helen and Sarah.

BONNIE ALLEN: Getting 13 girls to sit down at the breakfast table is the first of many hurdles in Katie Davis' day.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATIE DAVIS AND CHILDREN)

GIRLS: Dear Jesus. Dear Jesus. Thank you for food, Thank you for food. Thank you for Mommy. Thank you for Mommy.

ALLEN: Their mommy is American and young enough to be their sister. This morning, Davis sits at the head of a table in a grey tank top and plaid boxer shorts, with her long brown hair pulled into braided pigtails. Davis is the legal guardian or foster parent of all 13 girls.

DAVIS: Prossy, Margaret, Agnes, Zula, Mary, Helen, Tibita...

ALLEN: And she hopes to adopt them.

DAVIS: Sumin(ph), Grace and Patricia. Did I miss anyone?

GIRLS: No.

DAVIS: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: So how did Davis get here? Well, after high school, the Tennessee teenager - and a devout Christian - was eager to do volunteer work in Africa. She started teaching kindergarten at an orphanage in a small village near the town of Jinja, Uganda. One night, down the road from the orphanage, a mud hut collapsed on three small AIDS orphans during a rainstorm. Agnes was nine years old.

AGNES: I was in the hospital, and I asked mommy whether I can live with her, and she said yes.

ALLEN: Davis couldn't find any living relatives willing to take them, and she refused to send them to an orphanage where there are already so many children.

DAVIS: A lot of times, it's up to a hundred kids. And the workers are always changing. Even if you form a relationship with one of the aunties or one of the mommas, or whatever they call them at the orphanage, that momma might leave. And there are volunteers in and out all of the time, who you form attachment with, and then those people leave. And I didn't want them to have to go to an orphanage and have that life.

ALLEN: She rented a house and 10 more girls moved in over the next year and a half. They had been abandoned, abused, or watched their parents wither away from AIDS.

DAVIS: Patricia, come pick your dress.

ALLEN: The youngest girl - two-year-old Patricia - was literally given to Davis in 2009 by an HIV-positive mother who had 11 other children.

DAVIS: I think that's definitely something that I was made for. And God just designed me that way because he already knew that this is what the plan was for my life - even though I didn't.

CAROLINE BANKUSHA: To me, I think that's not acceptable. There is no way you can have more than four children.

ALLEN: That's child welfare officer Caroline Bankusha. She investigates adoption and foster care cases in Uganda's capital city, Kampala. Bankusha was surprised to hear about Davis's story and says, by law, the 22-year-old American is too young to adopt children in Uganda. She must be 25, and the children have to be under four years of age. Bankusha also disapproves of so many children in Davis' care.

BANKUSHA: Unless the children are placed under a children's ministry or a children's home, which she can start, otherwise it is really bad for someone to have more than five children, moreover legal guardianship.

DAVIS: Girls. Girls.

ALLEN: But Davis says she's done everything by the book, and is the court-appointed caregiver for all 13 girls. Davis' oldest daughter - 15-year-old Prossy - is quick to defend the unorthodox family.

PROSSY: I feel like she's really my mother, because she shows me love and I feel like, yes, this is my mom.

ALLEN: Davis has also started a nonprofit organization in Uganda called Amazima. With help from donors back in the states, Amazima sponsors 400 children to go to school, and feeds more than a thousand children five days a week. The job of director supports Davis and her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

ALLEN: But, being a stay-at-home mom is her real mission. Davis scrubs her two youngest daughters clean in the bathtub - a battle of its own.

DAVIS: People definitely ask me why so many? I don't know. These are the children that God brought to my door. Knowing that there's nowhere else for them to go, I don't find myself capable of sending them away.

ALLEN: For that reason, Davis isn't ruling out caring for more children, as long as Uganda's courts allow it. At the end of a long day, she herds her daughters off to bed, and gets them tucked in for sleep. I love you mommy.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISS)

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL NUMBER ONE: I love you mommy. Goodnight.

ALLEN: Katie Davis says she hopes for a husband and biological children, too, someday. But she'll stay in Uganda for the family she already has.

DAVIS: Tell your sisters night, night. Night, night.

ALLEN: For NPR News, I'm Bonnie Allen in Jinja, Uganda, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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