LONG BEFORE she died in October, Shirley Patterson had made clear her desire that her children would stay together.

In addition to her daughter Laura Patterson, now 23, she had five teenagers - two girls and three boys - all living in a rowhouse in the 1200 block of Hilton Street in North Philly.

Over the years, the Patterson clan has experienced more that its share of hard times. The children's father is serving time in prison, and in 2000, Shirley was diagnosed with breast cancer that later spread to her brain. But somehow, as a family, they have always gotten through the hard times together.

After her mother died, Laura Patterson took over. That means she is not only her siblings' big sister, but also their mother. That's an awesome responsibility for a young woman whose whole life is ahead of her. At the time she made the promise to her mother, Patterson was studying to be a medical assistant and also working as a school safety patrol officer.

Although she isn't the oldest child in the family, she never asked "why me?"

"I just was the one she [her mother] could depend on to be there and help her," explained Patterson, whose two older siblings don't live at home. "I always told her I wanted the children if anything ever happened to her. I wanted to keep them with me and for all of them to be together."

Laura never shirked responsibility. Before Shirley's death at age 45, Laura faithfully accompanied her mother to chemotherapy and radiation appointments. Since her mother's death, Laura has grieved while trying to help her sisters and brothers deal with their own trauma.

She disciplines them when they're late for school, cooks meals for them and listens when they are discouraged. Meanwhile, she also cares for her own 6-month-old daughter and an 8-month-old niece, who has a cleft palate, which necessitates that she be fed through a feeding tube. If you're keeping count, that means she's caring for seven children - five teens and two infants. Many adults twice her age would have bolted.

Patterson, who has temporary custody of her siblings, gets by on about $1,200 a month in Social Security payments. She has warned her siblings that this Christmas won't be like the holidays of years past with multiple gifts under the tree for each child and the Southern-style feast that their mother delighted in preparing.

Plus, the family needs to get out of their home (the owners want to sell it), and although they have found a nearby Section 8-approved house, they need about $1,800 for the first and last month's rent.

For now, Patterson is taking things one day at a time and trying not to worry or fret over the kids' Christmas list, which includes things like Polo boots (women's size 8 1/2) and Nike ACG boots (men's size 10 1/2).

The Daily News learned about the Patterson family through the Blues Babe Foundation, an organization founded by Philly's own Jill Scott to nurture college-bound students. The foundation, along with Duafe Holistic Hair Care, is collecting gently used clothing, shoes and toys to be given away at a Giveaway Boutique early next year. It was while organizing that event that the folks at Blues Babe learned about Laura Patterson.

"As a 22-year-old she was willing to take on that responsibility," said Aisha Winfield, executive director of Blues Babe, her voice filled with awe. "I have a 3-year-old and that responsibility even as a 36-year-old married woman is a lot." In addition to donating to the Giveaway Boutique, which will be open Jan. 1-3, Winfield would like people to donate toiletries, school supplies, school uniforms and gifts specifically for the Patterson family.

On Friday, the foundation will accept donations at the Urban Philly Professional Networking Mixer at the "13" restaurant inside the Philadelphia Marriott, beginning at 5:30 p.m. On Saturday, donations will be accepted at six area Ashley Stewart stores.

"I see her as such a brave young lady to take on that responsibility of heading that family," said Janet Williams, a volunteer at the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center who alerted the foundation about the Pattersons. "It chokes me up just to think of it. I lost my dad when I was her same age. "She's going to be so strong. She's going to be such a strong woman."

Volunteers are needed to sort merchandise on Sunday and Dec. 27 at Duafe Holistic Hair Care, 3502 Scott's Lane, and also to staff the Giveaway Boutique, which will be behind Sugar and Spice Bake Shop, 3510 Scott's Lane, in the Sherman Mills commercial center, East Falls. For more information or to volunteer, call 215-552- 8730 or e-mail info@bluesbabefoundation.org.