Ask how many siblings she has, and UC Irvine undergraduate Megan Baker has to stop and count. There are currently 13 kids living in her parents’ home – a high number, even by the Bakers’ standards. Since 1998, her parents have cared for almost 200 foster children, and they’ve become permanent guardians to five. Baker has been a sister to them all.

“Normally it’s a lot of fun,” she says, “but it can be intense.”

Removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect, many of these troubled children would have ended up in group homes if her family hadn’t taken them in. Baker understands why they act out – throwing tantrums, screaming or spitting at her, refusing to go to school. Much of what she’s learned about their care isn’t found in any textbook. It’s been a different kind of education; her experience has inspired a desire to improve mental health care for all foster children. After graduating in June with a degree in psychology and social behavior, she’ll go to medical school to become a psychiatrist.

“These kids need a large network of support, and psychiatry is one of the tools that can help them,” she says. “I will bring a unique perspective to the field.”

Baker has balanced her often hectic home life with stellar academic and athletic performance. A swimmer since age 7, she was on the women’s swimming and diving team for four years and served as team captain in 2005-06, although a shoulder injury and her academic status – she’s a fifth-year student – prevent her from competing this year. She was a Big West Scholar-Athlete four consecutive years and the 2006 Big West Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Baker belongs to UCI’s rigorous Campuswide Honors Program and Golden Key International Honour Society, joining in the society’s community service projects. For two years, she led a “Fun Fridays” program on campus, enlisting fellow students to babysit foster kids in Orange County so that caregivers could have a much-needed night off.

Baker herself has worked with troubled youths through jobs and internships; she’s currently an intern with the Community Service Programs Youth Shelter in Laguna Beach.

Her parents, who recently moved from San Diego to the Sacramento area, began taking in foster children when Baker was 12. She has never resented sharing attention with so many siblings.

“It’s like being on a team,” she says. “There are trials and triumphs. That’s where the camaraderie comes in. The depth of a relationship comes when you’re side by side, going through these experiences.”