by Mike Knaak
It all started with a baby girl, 16 years ago. The last of Sue and Ron Wochnick’s four children was a teenager and soon they would be empty nesters.
The Sartell residents had considered opening their home as a foster family but had never quite gotten around to it.
Then when Fingerhut shut down and the couple’s jobs ended, they made the move.
“It was something we had talked about for years since we were married,” Sue said.
Sue and Ron completed the foster family application and licensing.
“It was a long process,” Sue said. “The paperwork overwhelmed me. We put it away for a month or two. It kept nagging at me. We should be doing it.”
The family was approved and they welcomed the little 9-month-old girl.
“After her we were in it,” Sue said. “We fell in love with her. It was hard to let her go.”
She was the first of 78 foster children Sue and Ron have cared for. They eventually adopted three foster children over the years to join their family of two sons and two daughters.
Jennifer Thelen would like to find more families like the Wochnicks. Thelen is a Stearns County Human Services social worker. She is looking for more Stearns County families to open their homes for children needing foster care.
Although recruiting and licensing foster-care families is a year-round job, Thelen is trying to get the word out during May, Foster Care Appreciation Month, about the need for families to care for children.
Currently, 68 families provide foster care for about 160 children ranging from infants to age 17.
Foster parents are as diverse as the children they care for. Some are married; some are single; some are grandparents; some are parents with young children, adolescents or grown children; some hope to eventually adopt children. The characteristics foster parents have in common are love for children, an ability to commit to challenges and a desire to make a difference in the lives of children, Thelen said.
Families interested in foster care should contact human services at 320-656-6000 and ask for the coverage licensing social worker. The county conducts a no-commitment orientation about every two months. The session lasts about two-and-a-half hours.
Sue offered this advice for families considering foster care.
“If your heart’s in it, if you feel that drive, do it,” she said. “Fill out the paperwork. Start out slow. There’s such a great need. Once you get going, you can say I’m not ready for three, but just take one child.”
The Wochnicks have had as many as six foster children in their five-bedroom home. Right now, they are caring for four girls.
Even in early spring, the Wochnick’s park-like yard offers peaceful spots surrounding their large home. As Sue and Ron chat with a visitor, a girl looks for a place to sit and read on the family’s spacious deck.
As with birth children, parenting foster children has its challenges.
“Every child is different with different personalities,” Ron said. “When you get foster kids, there’s trauma. After you have them for a while, you start to love them and build an attachment.”
The challenges lead to rewards.
“Seeing how they grow, mature. As they grow they get independent,” Ron said. “It’s amazing to watch them grow into adulthood. I only hope there’s something they have learned from being in a family.”
Every Christmas, Sue and Ron invite their former foster children to join the family’s celebration.
“One of the biggest things is when we have kids turn 18, go out on their own, to watch them come back with their children and be part of their family,” Sue said.
Last summer when Ron needed cancer treatment, many of their former foster children attended a fundraiser.
“Sometimes you see the rewards after a while – long-term,” Ron said.