Seeking heroes in our own time, the Review-Journal annually asks the public to nominate people who in the past year took serious risks to life, career, financial well-being or other personal interests for the greater good of humanity. This is the second of six "Nevada Profiles in Courage" about some of those brave hearts who performed such deeds in 2007. Look for others each day through Saturday.
Marelyn Shapiro adopted and is raising seven kids on her own. On the side she also rescues injured songbirds and shelters pet dogs that need a new home.
The Shapiro family is complex. One trio of the children are birth siblings. Another trio of children are also birth siblings. Only the seventh child came to her as an infant, through a solo adoption. Today the children range in age from 3 to 16. The family also is a blend of several races, headed by Marelyn, 53, who has worked at various times as a delivery truck driver, a dance studio owner, a foster parent and a substitute teacher.
Shapiro "has a sense of humor and cracks jokes a lot," her 12-year-old daughter, Shamaria, wrote in a recent essay. "Her favorite saying when something is going wrong or mud is all over her or she is all wet from a broken hose is, 'It don't get any better than this!' Her next favorite saying is, 'Another day in paradise!' "
Shamaria nominated her mom for the newspaper's annual Profiles in Courage program, which honors local individuals who exhibited exceeding bravery in the prior year.
Shapiro did not perform a particular, isolated heroic act in 2007. But the newspaper agreed with Shamaria that it takes a special sort of hero, a person who's in for the long haul, to make a family for, and with, children who have suffered abuse and neglect. "We were all drug exposed at birth, and have many issues. Two of my brothers are special ed," is how Shamaria put it in her essay.
A study in "organized chaos" is how Heather Langle, a family friend, describes the bustling Shapiro household. Shapiro is "very approachable, in a boot-camp sergeant sort of way," Langle adds. The two met as parent volunteers at a middle school function in autumn 2006, shortly after the Shapiros had moved here from Berkeley, Calif.
"I always used to tell her, she's like a lobster," Langle says of Shapiro. "With the shell, it's hard to get in there. But when you get in, it's the sweetest experience. The kids know, she means business. ... She can't be warm and fuzzy all the time, or it's chaos."
Shapiro divides the household labor with all the children except the youngest, 3-year-old Michael. "Gary does the kitchen, that's his job doing dishes," she explains. "Nina's the cook. She makes dinner for us almost every night. Dustin does the pool and the yard. Him and DeMarier take care of cutting the lawn." Shamaria does a lot of the laundry, and her twin brother, Shamar, is the "master finder," by which Shapiro means he's the go-to guy when an object gets lost.
The key to the family's success is setting limits, Shapiro believes. "Firm, clear, strict limits with no sympathy for your feelings, but only sympathy for good behavior," she says.
But then she adds a daunting footnote: The average child learns about limits at an appropriate age, and "buys in" practically effortlessly. When a child has suffered family dysfunction so serious that he or she needs foster care, teaching limits is tougher. Some of her children arrived past toddler age, in what Shapiro calls an "almost feral" state, with no understanding of how to be careful or handle not getting their way.
Married and divorced at a young age, Shapiro says she got into child-rearing mode via foster care at age 40, when she realized she did not want to give birth without a life partner. The first six of her seven children joined her as foster kids, arriving in two batches. But she adopted each sibling group when California authorities determined reunification with birth parents was not a realistic goal. The household now also includes two toddlers who are the offspring of Nina, 16, who is unmarried and still lives at home. Shapiro describes those pregnancies not as a parenting failure, but the result of a difficult period in her daughter's life, which included several episodes of running away. Nina is now homeschooled, so she can help care for her own children.
The Shapiros have several family pets, but Marelyn has branched out into animal rescue, as well.
Under the supervision of Wild Wing Project, she is learning to rehabilitate non-endangered species such as sparrows and starlings for release back into the wild, according to Lisa Ross, project director.
For Adopt A Rescue Pet, Shapiro takes puppies into their home, one or two at a time, until they are adopted. She and a rotating subset of the children also spend most Saturday mornings on the sidewalk at a local pet supply store, where the public can view the program's adoptable animals.
Why take on the extra responsibility of sheltering orphaned or injured animals?
Besides being fun, it is a way to teach her children, Shapiro asserts. "They get an outside view of what it is to foster. To externalize that. To bring an animal in, foster it and set it free."
Contact reporter Joan Whitely at email@example.com or (702) 383-0268.