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Multiple Sclerosis can't stop mother of 11


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O'FALLON, Ill. - This is the roster at the Klopfenstein home: Two adults, 11 children (six currently staying at the house, but that number changes), two dogs, three cats, one parrot, one hamster, one rabbit and a dozen fish.

"It's never quiet around here," said Anita Klopfenstein, who manages the household with her husband, Lynn. "Never."

Klopfenstein, 44, wants to keep it that way.

Klopfenstein was married with children when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but that didn't slow her down. She took up marathon running, and a few years after that, expanded her brood of seven children by adopting four more. She has a full-time job, does volunteer work and practices tae kwon do, a martial art.

"I refuse to let this disease run my life," Klopfenstein said recently, sitting in the sunroom at the back of her house. "People ask, Why adopt all these kids when you have MS?', and I said,I could get cancer tomorrow, you could get hit by a bus. Are you going to stop living?'"

Klopfenstein says she goes through most of her days without even thinking about the disease. In fact, she says, her story will come as a surprise to many people who know her and probably wouldn't suspect she's "sick." She only recently told her children she has MS - and that was only because she was honored with the Mother of the Year award by the Gateway Area chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"We told them before the awards ceremony because we had to," she said.

For the past several years, the chapter has honored mothers who suffer from MS, and this year the decision was unanimous, said Debbie Johnson, a chapter spokeswoman.

"We give the award to an extraordinary mother with MS who handles the challenges of parenting with strength, compassion, creativity and resourcefulness while facing the additional challenge of having MS," Johnson said. "And that's Anita in a nutshell."

The neurological disease affects an estimated 400,000 people in the United States. It can be mild or severe, although most people with MS have a normal life span. Symptoms, including blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness and paralysis, often come and go. In some people the disease progresses quickly; in others, like Klopfenstein, more slowly.

"I run marathons, I ride my bike," Klopfenstein said. "Will I be able to do it for the rest of my life? I don't know. Will anyone?"

Klopfenstein says she has no choice but to stay focused on her life. As an assistant vice president of information systems at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, she leaves home early in the morning and returns each evening to a house filled with active, attention-craving kids.

She and her husband try to keep some semblance of order with a chart to track everyone's activities. There are pickups to orchestrate, often in the family's white, 15-seat passenger van nicknamed the "Snowball Express." The boys have football and wrestling; the girls cheerleading. Each of them plays an instrument.

"We live by the calendar," Klopfenstein said, glancing at the month of November, which is covered with scribbled times, notes and children's names. "When we map out our daily plan it looks like Mike Martz could use it as a defensive play."

The Klopfensteins have found inventive ways to manage a large family. One example: a "chore chart" that tracks the number of chores each child does and the points attached to each one. Scrubbing the upstairs bathroom, for example, is worth 30 points; sweeping the front porch, 15. When a child reaches a certain number of points, he or she gets cash. It's a way to keep the house clean and teach the children about money.

Klopfenstein always wanted a large family. She and Lynn have two children together, he has three from a previous marriage and the remaining seven are either foster children or adopted. Last year the couple adopted the most recent additions - four siblings of Vietnamese heritage who grew up in an abusive family in Texas.

"We both feel like God's given us a lot," Klopfenstein said. "We wanted to give back."

Klopfenstein concedes that it's not always easy, but she'd adopt more children if she could.

"No, it's not big enough," she said, referring to the couple's six-bedroom, red brick house. "But I think my husband has a fear that if we add on, I'll get more kids."

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(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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