Mercedes Kessler is collecting things for foster children.
"Anything a kid could want," said Mercedes, sitting in the living room of their Shiloh home with her parents, Joe and Annie, and sister Maddie, 5. "Toys, clothes, teenage items. There are a lot of older kids in foster care."
"I wanted to do something that was close to me. I was a foster child. I know how scary it is and how sad it can make you feel. I want to make them feel there's someone out there who cares."
Someone like Mercedes.
The poised 14-year-old has long, dark hair and a sweet smile. Sunday morning after church, she dressed up in jeans and a white T-shirt with a pink polka dot scarf.
"At my church (Corpus Christi in Shiloh), I was able to speak at the end of four Masses and talk about what I was doing," she said.
She got the OK from Rev. James Margason, pastor of the parish.
"We have a fairly long tradition of kids getting up and talking at Masses about charities they are assisting," he said. "It's a good way for kids to show their interest in social justice concerns. I remark to adults, 'This is what our young people are doing. They are our future. We need to support them in these ventures.'"
Sure, Mercedes was nervous, but she was rewarded afterward.
"This little girl who was 7 told me she was getting adopted in a couple months. My speech made her feel better. She reminded me of me when I was getting adopted."
Joe and Annie Kessler met Mercedes when she was 8. Happenstance brought them together.
The Kesslers had just been licensed as foster parents.
The couple got involved partly because Annie's parents had been foster parents.
"They adopted my little sister," she said. "They definitely infuenced me. At the time, we didn't have any children. We wanted to share our blessings with others."
They decided to sell one of their sedans in favor of a larger car -- just in case they fostered several children.
"(Mercedes') great-grandfather was interested in purchasing one of the cars," said Joe, 32, an IT manager with Charter cable. "He came back the next night. He came into our house and saw -- being the good Catholics we are -- we had a Mary statue on the wall. He asked, 'Are you Catholic?'"
Joe told him why they were selling the car.
Great-grandfather Chuck Bakken told them about Mercedes.
He worked full-time, took care the little girl and his wife who wasn't very mobile. They were looking for an adoptive family. He asked, "Would you be interested?"
Joe and Annie talked to Mercedes' social worker and the great-grandfather invited them to a Superbowl party at his house to meet her.
"I was 25," said Annie, 31, a writer for The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, she's big.' I am thinking an 8-year-old is smaller. I didn't have much experience. We played Barbies while the rest of the family watched football. She was sweet, energetic. We became friends."
"I thought they were friends with my (great-) grandparents," said Mercedes, who began visiting the Kesslers on weekends. They'd take her to movies or the zoo.
She became their foster child on June 17, 2008, her 9th birthday.
"The day she moved in, she asked if she could call us mom and dad," said Annie. "It went from there."
Annie was seven months pregnant at the time.
"Maddie was born the fourth of September," said Annie as the 5-year-old curled up alongside her. "It was an instant family."
"That was kind of hard," said Mercedes, "but I was excited about having a sister and being the bigger sister."
"She helped us name Maddie and get the nursery ready," said Annie.
Bumps in the road
Joe and Annie helped Mercedes adjust to her new life, but it wasn't all fun and games on either side.
"They were telling me what to do," said Mercedes.
"You never experienced that before," said Annie.
There was homework and chores.
"I was not used to that," said Mercedes. "When I left with my great-grandparents', it was a good home. I had a stable home. Before I lived there, I lived with my grandmother. She was on drugs and so was my mom. I wasn't able to go to school sometimes.
"She would be asleep. I was scared. I was lonely. I didn't have anybody looking out for me. When I went to live with my great-grandparents, (my grandma) said we were going there to visit them, and she dropped me off."
"That's scary, too," said Annie. "She had been through so much before she came to live with us."
"They had us get special training," said Joe.
The Kesslers didn't allow Mercedes to use her past as an excuse.
"It's not a pity-me party," said Annie.Despite all the changes, Mercedes made a connection.
One day, the social worker asked her, "If anybody could be your parents, whom would you choose?"
"Annie and Joe," she replied.
Mercedes wanted to be adopted, but didn't want to lose the connection with her great-grandparents and other family members.
"When they were alive, we visited often," said Annie.
Now, Mercedes' original extended family is like family to them.
"She's going out of town with her aunt on that side of the family next weekend."
Lesson in giving
A year ago, Mercedes was going through a rough spell. Her grades weren't good. She was struggling.
She decided to collect items for Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital to get her mind off her problems. She and her family delivered a vanload of toys to the hospital.
"I told myself in the summer I was going to do better this year," she said. "I wanted to make my parents proud."
"She's come a very long way," said Annie. "She had an IEP (individual education program) with special needs in school. Now, she's completely mainstreamed. Most of her grades are A-plus."
So is her attitude.
"My parents really taught me to be what I am today," said Mercedes. "They taught me what's right and wrong, to care for others."
"Did we do anything to help you see you should be kind?" said Annie.
"Yes," said Mercedes. "They like to do nice things. Whenever we're in the drive-through lane at McDonald's, they ask, 'What's their order?' (for the car behind us.) They pay for the meal."
Mercedes feels lucky to be adopted.
"It worked out like a puzzle piece, how my (great-) grandparents met my family," she said. "There are kids out there who don't have families, who don't know what it's like."
Want to help? Drop off items for newborns to age 18 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays at Corpus Christi Parish Center, 205 Rasp St., in Shiloh. Deadline is April 25. Clothing, games, toys, puzzles, gift cards, diapers, makeup, art supplies -- all are needed. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Favorite class: Social studies. "Learning about stuff that actually happened in the past."
Favorite food: "Red Robin. I like their burgers a lot."
Favorite movie: "'The Hunger Games.' I read the books. I couldn't put them down. The movie was fun, too."
Interest: "Running track. I do it every single day. I run the mile. I started off doing 5Ks. I was never confident to try out for sports in school." Last year, she ran a half marathon. "I had my dad with me. He pushed me. Running is a good way to relieve stress. When I'm sad or angry at home, I would go out for a little run."