(LARGO, Md.) — Strolling through a retirement home in Largo, Maryland, Emma Patterson takes a seat to show photos from her cell phone.

One by one, she scrolls through photos showing different children throughout the years whom she has fostered.

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Patterson says she’s fostered over 40 children since she opened her home in Montgomery County, Maryland, to foster youth in the 1980s.

The need for foster parents in the U.S. remains crucial. There were over 400,000 youth in the foster care system waiting for placement in a permanent home as of 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

Patterson is one of the foster parents in the county who has housed the most children long-term and one of the longest-serving foster parents, a Montgomery County spokesperson confirmed to ABC News. Now after decades of caretaking youth in need, Patterson, 88, is retiring.

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“This wasn’t something that I ever thought anybody paid attention to. You know, I didn’t do it for the purpose of anybody, give me any recognition,” Patterson told ABC News. “It was always a situation where it was just a boy or girl that didn’t have anybody to care anything about them. And they needed a place to sleep or something to eat.”

Patterson says she started to get involved in the foster care system when her two birth children started bringing other kids home who needed help.

Whether they needed winter coats, food, or a place to stay, her birth kids brought others home knowing their mom would help them, she said.

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“With my kids, you know, every time I looked, they were bringing a boy or girl home,” Patterson said. “But I said okay, you know, these are children. They need help. And so I just started doing what I could to help them. So that’s kind of how I got started. I guess you’d call it foster care because some of them came and didn’t leave.”

Patterson says she had just split with her ex-husband when she began to open her home. She worked two jobs — one at the University of the District of Columbia, the other in retail — and she would often use her discount to get the kids what they needed.

Eventually, Patterson’s house in White Oak, Maryland, became an official foster home for Montgomery County. She started to foster even younger children, picking up newborns from hospitals and nurseries who needed a place to go home to. She’s legally adopted two of them.

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In May, Montgomery County presented Patterson with an award to recognize her years of service to the youth of the county.

“This is something I’m actually connected to; I have 2 foster children and I understand what foster parents do and the important role they play in a child’s life,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who presented Patterson with the award in May. “I am happy to honor Ms. Patterson for her dedication to our community over all these years. I’m glad she’s getting the kind of recognition she has long deserved. I hope her story inspires others to help vulnerable children and families as well. Montgomery County is not alone in having an urgent need for new foster families.”

Patterson credits her own mother and both of her grandmothers for her maternal instincts. Patterson told ABC News she grew up in a loving home with caring parents and three siblings, and she wanted to give that experience to all the kids that came into her home.

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For Patterson, the best part of her entire fostering experience is seeing the people her foster kids have grown into.

“I’m very proud of all of the children because, you know, they all have just turned out to be just wonderful human beings, “I’m just so proud of them, you know, that little bit of something I was able to give them or do for them that if it was in any way, you know, helpful for them to have such wonderful achievements in life. You know, I’m just delighted for them, you know, they just turned out to be great human beings.”

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