FLAMES CRACKLED in the fireplace and an array of home-baked cookies waited invitingly on the dining room table. Alaina, 15, was teasing her mother about her knowledge of teenage gossip. Isaiah, 16, was talking with his father about a hiking trip they'd taken.
Three-year-old Jordan was playing on the floor. From the couch, Jonathan, 12, interjected: "Dad, what age is over the hill? Forty?"
It was a typically happy scene in the Thomases' Chester home. In fact, the only thing that might have seemed slightly atypical was how well everyone was getting along.
And to think that, just over a year ago, they weren't even a family.
A few years ago, as Jane and John Thomas were finally poised to become empty-nesters, they did something that some people might find crazy: They decided to fill up their home again.
"We raised our kids. We could have made it all about us," Jane Thomas said. "But for us, we just wanted to make a difference somewhere."
In the last three years, they've adopted four children - including three teen and preteen siblings - bringing the total of their brood to eight. Jordan was adopted as an infant. The adoption paperwork for siblings Isaiah, Alaina and Jonathan was finalized in early December of last year.
Now, the expanded Thomas clan has had a full year of living together, of getting to know each other, of school and summer and of work and play. Now, they're preparing to celebrate what they consider their first real Christmas.
"Last year, everything happened so fast. This year, we feel more like a family," Jane Thomas said. "It bothers me to imagine how many kids are going to wake up Christmas and not know where they'll be next year."
Gloria Hochman, director of communications for the Philadelphia-based National Adoption Center, said it's unusual to have a family take on three children at once. It's also more challenging to find homes for older children. The Thomases went against both grains.
"They're an incredible family," Hochman said. "The children are thriving in this family, and what a difference from even a year ago."
The three siblings had bounced around the foster-care system for about 10 years. Often, the elder two - Isaiah and Alaina - were put into the same home. Jonathan was put into another.
"It's kinda horrible," Jonathan said of changing families and being separated from his siblings.
Twice during that time, the trio was almost adopted. The first time was by their grandmother, but she was unable to provide essentials like food. The second time was by a family, but members were accused of physically abusing the children.
Each time, even in the less-than-ideal situations, the siblings were excited by the idea of finally finding a stable home and a little disappointed when things fell through.
"We just wanted to stay in one place and live without interruptions," Alaina said. "We just wanted to feel safe."
a word that comes up a lot when the children discuss their ideal home. That's common, Hochman said.
Children in foster care generally crave consistency, safety and security, she said. They want to wake up in the same home two Christmases in a row. They want to know they won't be harmed by the people around them.
"There's no perfect family, but so many families out there would make wonderful parents for the children we have," Hochman said. "You have to be patient. You have to have a great deal of love and a great deal of understanding."
Luckily, the Thomases have patience, love and understanding. And when they met the siblings, Jane Thomas said, "The kids just captured our hearts."
Jane Thomas, 48, is retired as a chaplain from the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. John Thomas, 51, is superintendent at the State Correctional Insitution in Chester. They have four older children, ages 19 to 33.
"There's never a dull moment here," Jane Thomas said.
The couple are devout Christians and feel their faith calls on them to give to others. They were saddened to think that people had become so disconnected from their communities that they could look away from children in need. They decided to live their beliefs.
"If anyone should be able to give a child a home, that should be forefront of our mission," Jane Thomas said. "We have children who cry themselves to sleep or are afraid to go to sleep. One of the greatest gifts you can give to a motherless or fatherless child is a mother and father. And they give so much in return."
Soon after deciding to adopt, the Thomases consulted resources like the National Adoption Center's website. That's where they first saw a photo of the siblings.
Then the photo popped up again in a church bulletin.
"The picture just kept following us and haunting us," John Thomas said.
They decided they needed to meet the siblings.
At about the same time, the siblings were learning a bit about the Thomases and two other families that were interested in adopting them. They zeroed in on the fact that John worked as a prison superintendent.
"It made us feel really safe," Alaina said.
The parties first met at a local restaurant. The Thomases were careful not to bring cameras so as not to scare the children off. The children had no such qualms: Each armed with a camera, they greeted the Thomases like a pack of paparazzi.
After the meeting, adoption officials asked which family the siblings preferred.
"We said it at the same time: 'Them,' " Isaiah recalled, referring to the Thomases. "We all knew it."
More than a year later, all of the children have legally changed their last name to Thomas. They call Jane and John "Mommy" and "Daddy" without hesitation. They talk about how excited they are that their older sister will be coming home for Christmas vacation.
"We blend in," Alaina said. "People tell me all the time, 'You look like your dad. You have his nose.' "
Finances have been a little tighter with four extra mouths to feed, and all three of the siblings talk about college. Jane Thomas also left her job so she could be home more.
It's all worth it, the Thomases say.