At 23, Tamu Smith considers herself a pioneer, of sorts.

She and her husband Keith, 26, have taken on the enormous responsibility of raising seven of her siblings.Her brother and sisters were being cared for by her grandparents in Fresno, Calif. But last January her grandmother had a stroke. A few hours later her grandfather had a heart attack and has since died.

With their grandma unable to care for them, the youngest children were facing the possibility of being split into foster homes.

The family comprises twins Aboyomi and Fayola, 19 (both in California caring for their grandmother); Leah, 17, Lateefah, 15, Viteria, 9; twins Vera and Vanna, 7; Maykela, 5 and Rayshaun, 2.

Smith was born in San Bernardino, Calif., when her mother was only 13 and her father 15. Although her father didn't claim her, her mother's parents did. "My grandfather said, `We'll take the baby and raise her and give her our name,' " she said.

After Smith, her mother had nine more children through other relationships and three marriages. Her mother has since experienced a nervous breakdown and suffers from drug addiction. Smith said she knew she didn't want to follow in that lifestyle.

Her belief in God was strong, and her grandparents, aunts and uncles were devoted churchgoers. Some of them served as missionaries for their church.

"I was being trained to be a Pentecostal missionary," Smith said. "I was taught never to turn down the word of God. Grandma always said just listen."

With that philosophy, it was easy for her, as a 12-year-old, to listen to two LDS missionaries when they knocked on her grandparents' door. She later joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and said that strengthened her determination to make her and her siblings' lives better.

When acquaintances would caution Smith about the consequences of taking care of so many children, she said she would think about the Mormon pioneers crossing the plains.

"Would they have left their sisters behind?" she asked. "Some people wouldn't want the responsibility."

Smith would not leave them to foster homes. Five of them had already been in that situation.

The Smiths gathered the family and moved to Utah so both could finish school. When they arrived, they immediately began looking for help. Smith said she knew that if she could get to Utah, and if the children ever had to go to foster homes, her family would at least have a better chance of finding a good home life.

With help from Community Action and other United Way agencies, the Smiths are able to take care of Tamu's half-sisters. "If it wasn't for them, I don't know what we would do," Smith said.

Community Action is providing a four-bedroom rental home for the family through the next year until they can find alternative housing through the Utah County Housing Authority.

"They are providing us with parenting classes and they are really great with the teenagers through their Big Brother/Big Sister program," Smith said.

Other friends, former bosses and the Provo School District, have provided the family with everything from beds to winter clothing. Just a few weeks ago their only vehicle, a Toyota Tercel, was replaced with a van - a gift from a friend.

Smith is currently a part-time student at Brigham Young University, seeking a degree in communications/advertising and is expecting her first baby in February. Her husband works at a private group home for boys and will continue his studies in sociology at BYU this winter.

"It's hard for me. Keith and I are still learning," she said. "I think about it sometimes and the frustrating part is trying to answer their question: `Why doesn't Mama love me?' "

With help from friends and agencies like Community Action, Smith and her family are holding on to a bright future. The girls are doing well in school and feeling a sense of stability in their lives.