Tag Archives: Family Success Story

The Yellow House

January 12, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

“You have to be a little crazy to live with 14 people,” says Josh Buckingham-Weibel, “but, for our family, it just works. And I personally have enjoyed every minute that we’ve lived together.”

Buckingham-Weibel is a junior in college. On Jan. 15, 2009, just a few days before he turned 16, his three siblings and his mom moved into a house with his aunt and uncle and their five kids. A few months later, his uncle’s sister and brother-in-law joined them. Nine kids—now 10—and five adults have made a home in The Yellow House.

The oldest of the kids, Buckingham-
Weibel was all for it when the families were deciding to move in together. The benefits, in his eyes, included getting to see his family on a daily basis, having cousins who are essentially more like younger siblings, and getting to watch them all grow up. “And you learn so much from everybody else in the house,” he adds. “There’s a lot of different life experience that everyone has had, so there’s a lot to learn.”

The appeal of 
shared parenting

Was it kind of like having five parents? “Well, there’s a lot of accountability, and you really don’t get away with a whole lot,” he says.

That adjustment to the number of parents was one worry that his mom, Amy Lee, had when making this decision. Recently widowed, Lee had become a single parent. “I was concerned about them going from having two parents to one parent to three parents—or three adults in their life every day, nagging them about cleaning their room or whatever. And it ended up being more than three. It’s five,” she says with a laugh.

This idea of community living came about one day while Lee helped her sister with some childcare. “Eric had died almost two years earlier, in July of 2005,” Lee says of her late husband. “In that two years, my sister had two babies.” That’s in addition to the three kids her sister already had. “So she had needed help one day to take her kids to the doctor or something. And I had gone over and helped her.”

That day made her sister wish that Lee lived closer.

“Here I am, trying to figure out what it means to do life by myself. And here’s my sister trying to figure out how to deal with two small babies,” says Lee. “It was really just coming to this place of wanting to support each other. Moms with small kids get to feeling pretty isolated and alone. And moms who are widows get to feeling pretty isolated and alone.”

First the sisters talked about moving into the same neighborhood. However, when they started to look at the options, neither family’s needs could be accommodated in the other’s neighborhood. And that’s when the conversation turned to the two families buying a house together.

The hunt for a place that worked for everyone

“We did some reading, we did a lot, a lot, a lot of talking, and we did a lot of praying,” Lee remembers. “And we decided: We’ll commit to five years.”

The house-buying process took a year and a half—“plenty of time for people to back out; plenty of space for the conversations we needed to have,” says Lee.

Those conversations included drafting a mission statement and other community documents that were specific about things like no extramarital affairs, no alcohol or drug abuse, and what “safe touch” meant. This ensured that they were all on the same page to start out.

In that time, “we looked at, gosh, hundreds of houses. And I’m not joking,” says Lee. They put offers on five other houses that didn’t work out for one reason or another. “Then winter hit. A bunch of houses dropped in pricing, and this house came more into our price range.”

The 3,600-square footage includes six bedrooms and two and a half baths, with expansive front and back yards. “It’s definitely more space than I could ever take care of on my own,” says Lee. But it was perfect for a community living space. (And it’s even been approved by the Omaha Planning Department.)

Adults No. 4 and 5, Amanda and Chad Knihal, were invited to consider living in this community shortly thereafter. As a couple planning to have kids, “I was pretty confident that, if we had children, I would want to stay home with them,” says Amanda. “And the idea of having two other moms who were also at home at that time was really exciting.”

The two years that the Knihals originally committed to went quickly, and now it’s been almost five. The Knihals had a baby last August and have been getting a lot of questions about whether or not they’ll stay in The Yellow House. For now, anyway, Amanda says, “This is just where we live—this is home.”

The payoff of a family that’s closer than ever

Lee has loved having the Knihals around. Before they had a baby and became “real adults,” they were a great bridge between Lee and her teenagers. “Close enough to those teen years that they remember what it’s like, but adult enough to understand where I’m coming from,” Lee says.

And, as far as parenting goes, “I learn all the time from them—all four of them—even though I’ve been parenting longer,” Lee says.

“I really value that my kids get to live with other adults, especially married people. That they get to see two couples who love each other and who respect each other and who work together. They wouldn’t have gotten to see that if we didn’t do this. I think that’s really valuable in life,” Lee says, tears welling up. “On the flip side of that, it’s been surprising to me how that makes me miss Eric a lot, to watch that.”

Lee’s biggest concern in all this was moving the kids out of the house that they lived in with their dad. “That place carried so many memories for them—for us all,” she says. “And it was hard. It was hard to leave there. They’d already been through a lot of change, and so to put them through another one…I was really concerned about that.”

When she asked the kids about it, they had some questions, but they seemed very positive and interested. And the ways that the cousins have bonded have made it all worthwhile.

“I had hoped that our kids would be close,” Lee says, “but I feel like they really have forged some strong friendships. That kind of stuff anchors you in life. When you have made movies and played games and roasted marshmallows and skated with sparklers on the ice rink in the back yard—what were we thinking? Oh my gosh.”

Traditions like these are what make a house a home, and The Yellow House has no shortage of them. Winter Olympics on that same ice rink, playing Sardines with all the lights off, and countless celebrations mark the passing years. Five will have come and gone in January.

“I’m really grateful for family who were willing to try something that, for our country, is out of the ordinary,” Lee says. “I know it’s not for everybody, but I think more people should try it.”

Family Success Story: 
The Ner Clay & Paw Tha Family

November 4, 2013 by

Ner Clay and Paw Tha are a humble couple with a story that is hard for most of us to imagine. They have lived three different lives—the first in Burma, their homeland; the second in the refugee camps of Thailand; and now their third in Omaha.

Burma—now called Myanmar by military rule, but forever known as Burma to its refugees—lies south of China on the Bay of Bengal. Home to a number of ethnic groups, the Karen (kuh-REHN) people make up about one third of the country’s population. The Karen are quiet, respectful, and industrious. Family life is extremely important. Marriages are strong and function as a partnership of equals. The parenting style is firm but loving, and children of every age are respectful and obedient. Traditionally, Karen do not have family names; each person is seen as an individual.

The Karen suffered political and religious oppression in their homeland for many decades. But it became much worse in the 1970s and ’80s when a violent new military régime took over the government. A systematic genocide began, driving the Karen people into the forest while government soldiers burned their villages. The only way to stay alive was to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, where the families of Ner Clay and Paw Tha found safety.

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You might think of a refugee camp as offering temporary quarters. But history tells us the average stay for people in refugee camps worldwide is 15 years. Paw Tha lived 11 years in the camps. Ner Clay spent 30 years there.

“Life in the refugee camps was difficult,” says Ner Clay. “We were safe inside the fences, but we could hear enemy gunfire in the hills. People were crowded and lived in poor conditions. Monsoons washed away the dirt walls of our shelters, and we had to rebuild them after the rainy season. People could not leave the camp borders, and there was no way to earn a decent wage to a better life. When the fighting grew closer, the entire camp—thousands of people—had to move farther into Thailand.”

Faith and education are important values of the Karen culture, so churches and schools were organized. Ner Clay learned to speak English as a boy. As an adult, he served as a minister and helped charities organize services to the residents of the camp. Paw Tha arrived as a teenager who had already studied languages, history, and science. She taught English to first graders. Eventually, the couple found each other and were married. All three daughters—Victoria, now age 12, Gloria, 10, and Julia, 7—were born in the camp.

In 2008, Ner Clay and Paw Tha and their daughters were granted visas to travel to the United States. They were first placed in St. Paul, Minn., where they lived for three months. The couple’s English language skills positioned them in high demand. Then Ner Clay was asked to move his family to Omaha, where there was a need for a religious and cultural leader among the new Karen arrivals.

Ner Clay and Paw Tha moved their family into an apartment complex in North Omaha, and the Karen families followed. Day after day, they labored to settle their own family and jobs while helping dozens of new refugee families translate their mail, make appointments, drive for errands, and function in an all-English world.

Ner Clay became associate pastor of the Karen Christian Revival Church with a growing parish of more than 400 families. In addition to spiritual support and recreational activities, the church became a resource center for the community, offering resettlement assistance, clothing and household items, job-seeking advice, and educational programs that help the families adjust to life in Omaha.

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Paw Tha is now an interpreter at Franklin Elementary School, and their daughters attend Springville Elementary School, both of which are in the Omaha Public Schools district. In a comfortable home in northwest Omaha, they continue to provide assistance to established and new refugees—explaining insurance policies, legal documents, housing requirements, and notes from the children’s schools. They feel very lucky to be in a position to help others succeed, and often repeat their own personal slogan: “We are blessed to be a blessing.”

Still, Paw Tha is concerned about some of the darker aspects of American culture. “In the camps, there is nothing to do, so there are many eyes on the children. Here, the children have so much more freedom and are exposed to many temptations,” she says. “I worry that they will lose respect for the ways of our culture.”

“Except for a few setbacks, things have turned out pretty much the way we hoped,” Ner Clay says. “Our people are finding success. They have bought more than 300 homes and have started new businesses—grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and auto repair. We came here for freedom and citizenship, and we want to contribute to this great country. Anything is possible in America!”

This September, Ner Clay and Paw Tha became U.S. citizens, which granted automatic citizenship to their daughters. The couple agrees: “We hope our daughters will grab whatever opportunity they get in America.”

Family Success Story: The Goertzes

August 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Have you ever seen that family that carts around tons of kids and wondered, “How in the world do they do it?” Look no further than the Goertz family of Bennington.

Larry and Heather Goertz have four kids: Tayler, 20, Zachary, 16, Kassidy, 14, and Amber, 10. That might already sound like a crazy brood, but it gets crazier. You see, the Goertzes are also foster parents to two different sets of kids. There are the four “little ones”—siblings ages 15 mos., 3, 4, and 5—who don’t live with them, but whom they see every few weeks from morning until night. And then there are the “five”—siblings ages 2½, 8, 10, 12, and 15—who are with them full-time. Sound crazy yet?

“There are hard days,” says Heather, who’s an occupational therapist. “But when we’re all together, that’s when it’s the greatest.” She says that getting the okay from their kids was very important to her and Larry when they made the decision to get involved with foster care. “We’re a foster family, not foster parents.”

Their foster care adventure began in 2011 after their oldest daughter, Tayler, graduated from high school. “It was hard letting go of her,” Heather explains. “[But] we looked around and thought, ‘You know what? We’ve got happy, healthy kids. We’re good at this thing. We have a lot to offer.’”

Larry and Heather Goertz

Larry and Heather Goertz

It started with a boy from Latvia. “Unfortunately, we had more bad days than good with him,” she says. He only stayed 28 days with the family before they all realized it wasn’t the right fit. But then the “little ones” found them; the “five,” too. They fit with the Goertzes much better. “Even with 13 kids in the house at times, it kind of comes easily when you’re doing what you love.”

Although the Goertzes’ youngest daughter, Amber, had to learn quickly that she was no longer the baby in the family, Heather believes the adjustment went smoothly. “We’re still getting to know each other, but we intentionally try to have dinner together three nights a week to become a closer family.”

“We’re a foster family, not foster parents.” – Heather Goertz

Sometimes, however, dinner presents a challenge for Heather (in fact, she’d say meals in general present a challenge). “Our ‘normal’ is healthy food every day and junk food occasionally. The foster kids’ ‘normal’ is the opposite. It’s a struggle to raise these kids without letting my personal health views get in the way. I’m supposed to keep them safe and healthy, but to what standard?”

Even though she wants to help her foster kids live healthier lifestyles, she thinks that forcing them to change their lifestyles when they’ve already faced trauma isn’t helpful. “It all comes through in its own timing,” she says.

One of her favorite stories about their food struggles is about one of the “five” trying broccoli for the first time. “I told him he could have a quarter if he tried it. He said make it a dollar, so I made him a deal that if he ate all of his broccoli, then he could have a dollar. After he did it, he used that dollar to buy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos,” she laughs.

Kassidy, Tayler, Zachary, and Amber Goertz

Kassidy, Tayler, Zachary, and Amber Goertz

Nevertheless, when times get tough, Larry and Heather have their solid marriage. After 17 years together, they’ve found their relationship to be at the core of everything. “We’ve felt numb before, and we’ve worked through some really hard stuff, but every marriage that sticks together has its ups and downs. Still, our purpose always comes back to family and whatever children God gives us or brings to our doorstep,” she says.

Of course, Heather feels a strong faith and a positive attitude are the main components of getting through the challenges each day presents. “I’m constantly in prayer,” she adds. “I try to focus on the good things…Sometimes, I’ll just turn up the radio and start twirling in the kitchen. You just have to break that negative energy and let go of how you think things should be.”

So why do the Goertzes take on such a challenging opportunity? For one, they’re risk-takers. “We’d rather take risks to do what’s right,” says Heather. But mostly, it’s because they’ve been blessed with a good life, and they want to extend that good life to others. “This is our mission work right here.

“As these kids come, they aren’t just here for a little while. They’re in our hearts forever. And we know in some ways we’ll be with them forever.”

Family Success Story: The Zettermans

July 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jenny Zetterman hopes that, one day, other families will look at her family and think, “You know what? Nothing should keep us from adopting a special needs child.” Because that’s exactly what Jenny and her husband, Andrew, thought when the opportunity found them.

The Zettermans, who recently moved out to Elkhorn (where their girls will attend Spring Ridge Elementary), adopted their youngest, Annalyse, when she was just 5 weeks old. She had been diagnosed with spina bifada and hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid in the brain) and was determined paralyzed from the waist down.

Jenny and Annalyse

Jenny and Annalyse

“I was able to go before the rest of the family and stay in the NICU with her for four days while the nurses and doctors gave me information on spina bifada,” Jenny says. “This was extremely helpful because we knew very little about spina bifada. We had two days between finding out about her and flying to go be with her, so we didn’t have time to research while packing and preparing for a baby.”

Life for the Zettermans before Annalyse was fairly typical, although they had adopted once before with daughter McKenna, 8. Nevertheless, Jenny reflects back on that time, referring to it as “the easy years” of parenting. “All three girls were pretty independent…They hadn’t hit pre-teen years, so they still thought their parents were the best people in the world.”

Of course, McKenna, Kaedyn, 7, and Brea, 5, were thrilled to be adding a little sister to their family. “They had a few questions about her diagnosis, but overall, they were just excited to meet her,” Jenny says. “They had to wait about a week after I met her to join me so they wouldn’t miss too much school. I’m sure that wait was very hard for them.” Fortunately, Jenny used the iPhone “Facetime” capability to call home and let her girls see the new baby from the NICU.

Andrew with Brea and Kaedyn.

Andrew with Brea and Kaedyn

According to Jenny, the family dynamic hasn’t changed much since they adopted Annalyse. The only difference? The older sisters love helping out with their little sister and teaching her new things. “Annalyse is just another member of the family…We have a lot more doctor’s appointments and live life around a baby’s schedule again, but that’s about it. I think you just adjust to whatever you have to adjust to.”

Jenny and Andrew’s 13-year marriage has also kept the family solid. “We have a strong commitment to our marriage. I believe our kids can see that and take comfort in it.”

Looking back on the adoption process, Jenny shakes her head. “We went into it knowing that we could be adopting a child with a special need,” she explains. “One thing we did say was that we would consider many different types of needs, but not one that required a wheelchair [because] our house wouldn’t allow for this type of need, and we had just moved in. It seems so silly to us now that we ever uttered those words—‘just not a wheelchair.’”

McKenna

McKenna

Jenny believes too many people, including parents, get too caught up on inconveniences in their own lives that they forget to think about what other people are dealing with or will have to deal with in their lives. “I am so thankful that we ended up letting go of our reservations,” she adds. “We all are capable of so much more than we think we are.”

As for Annalyse, Jenny stresses that she’s a fantastic child. “She’s not blessed to have us; we’re blessed beyond measure to have her in our family. She’s not our ‘special needs daughter;’ she’s just, plain and simple, our daughter.”

Family Success Story: The Codrs

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fertility issues are something that Jim Codr wouldn’t wish on anyone—not even his worst enemy. “You just sort of float along indefinitely with no end in sight. You start to question what you are, what you want, and how bad you want it.”

Emily, his wife of nearly 10 years, agrees. “There was a time when we didn’t think we would be able to have any children,” she says. “Our biggest obstacle, as a couple, [was] the difficulty of starting a family.”

Nora, 3.

Nora, 3.

But then, one day, everything turned around for the Codrs. They were blessed with a daughter, Anna. And then twins Nora and Margaret. And then a son, Edward. All of these fairly back-to-back pregnancies were surprising. “We got all sorts of raised eyebrows when we announced No. 4 was coming,” Emily adds.

What the Codrs didn’t realize was that the little blessings they had hoped for would turn out to be just as testing on their marriage as the fertility issues. “Having four children under 4 made life very stressful,” Emily says. “We had heard that multiples put a lot of stress on a marriage, but we had no idea just how little time we would have for each other, let alone ourselves.”

Each day presents a new set of obstacles for Jim and Emily. Not only do they have to ready themselves for work every morning; they also have to feed, dress, and drop off their four kids at school and daycare. It’s quite the hassle already, but it can be even more taxing when the children don’t want to cooperate. “[It] requires a great deal of organization and pre-planning the night before,” Emily says.

Eddie, 2.

Eddie, 2.

Fortunately, Jim and Emily, who both grew up in Omaha, have plenty of support around them to take some of the edge off of raising four young children.

“We lived in Kansas City for about five years prior to moving [back] to Omaha. I came to work for my father,” Jim says. “We came to that decision primarily because we [knew we] wanted to start having kids and thought the career move would be a better fit…Boy, I’m glad we did. The flexibility and benefits are huge.” Emily, too, has a flexible job that allows her to attend to the needs of her family when problems arise.

“We have an amazing network of people that have done nothing but help us along the way,” Emily says. “We have wonderful friends that didn’t forget about us when the days were long and hard caring for multiple babies…We often remark that life would be a whole lot more complicated for us outside of Omaha. [It’s] such a wonderful place to raise a family.”

When it comes to parenting, Jim and Emily try to stay away from the “divide and conquer” philosophy and focus more on working together. Leaving the house is a perfect example. Going anywhere with their children is one of the most hectic things they deal with on a regular basis, but they’ve gotten to the point where they have a system. “Logistically [for us], we simply need two adults minimum…It has sort of forced us to another level of parental participation,” Jim explains.

“We always wanted a big family…We may not be taking our kids on trips around the world, but at the end of the day, we tuck in four, healthy, balanced children whose parents love them and love each other.” – Emily Codr

“We don’t have roles as parents. If something needs to be done, we just do it,” Emily adds.

“I disagree with Emily about roles. She has a role—just do everything!” Jim counters with a laugh. “But seriously, she is a really terrific mom and keeps the engine going. I’d be lost without her.”

Having so many young children so fast brought the family closer together, in the Codrs’ opinion. Before they had kids, Jim and Emily had been more “carefree and freewheeling…even self-absorbed and a little immature.” Or, at least, that’s how Jim saw himself. Nevertheless, being parents has taught them many lessons.

Anna, 6.

Anna, 6.

“Being together is a priority for us,” Emily says. “We do most everything as a family, and we enjoy sharing experiences with each other. We [also] appreciate the ordinary days.”

“You learn what patience and determination really are,” Jim says. “It’s very easy to lay blame when things are going wrong, especially when they’re out of your control…You learn to stop hitting below the belt and lean on each other instead.” He adds that he admires his wife for her calm collectiveness. “I wish I had the grace under fire that she does.”

Although raising four children is quite enough to deem Jim and Emily saints in some people’s eyes, they don’t feel like they’re doing anything extraordinary. “We always wanted a big family…We may not be taking our kids on trips around the world, but at the end of the day, we tuck in four, healthy, balanced children whose parents love them and love each other,” Emily says.

Of course, the Codrs say their kids are just like other kids (in other words, they fight constantly). But in the end, they work well together and love one another.

Maggie, 3.

Maggie, 3.

“One of the coolest things about having several kids stacked together is that they have such an emotional attachment to each other,” adds Jim. “They always want to do things as a family. They love the weekends and nicknamed it ‘family day’…Their sibling relationships are just as important as the child-parent relationships. We try to stress that.”

“From what we have been told, parenting doesn’t get any easier as the kids get older, but we are sharpening our teamwork skills every day, and life must be getting easier because we cannot imagine how we did it,” Emily says.

“Oh yeah,” Jim adds. “It never ends. But that’s part of the fun, right? You get better. The kids get better. We’re all learning how to cope with one another.”

Family Success Story: The Dotsons

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Date night” is not a term often used in the Dotson household; however, “family” is. After 11 years of marriage, David and Susie Dotson have experienced more than any parents should, but they still find time to come together as a family and cherish the moments they have. “Our marriage has shaped us to be better parents,” Susie explains.

“Strength” is another word thrown around a lot when discussing the Dotsons. Their first child, Noah, was born with autism. “He suffered from anxiety [when he heard] any loud noise growing up. He didn’t develop his speech to explain his fears and anxiety until around age 4.” Susie became focused on trying to help Noah by going to autism events, getting involved in discussion groups, and doing her own research. The Millard Public Schools district was able to get Noah started with homebound help at age 2, and eventually into Halo, a gifted learning program at Wheeler Elementary School, where he continues to build his communication skills.

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A couple years after Noah’s birth, Lily was born five weeks early and had to stay in the NICU for two weeks. She went home on a heart monitor and eventually grew into a healthy baby girl. Five years later, however, Lily was suddenly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer common in childhood and characterized by the overproduction of immature white blood cells in the bone marrow.

Susie remembers the day they found out. “I felt all summer long that something wasn’t right with her. I had mother’s intuition.” After complaining of stomach aches and her legs hurting when she played sports, Susie took Lily out of gymnastics, soccer, and swimming. She thought the schedule may have been too daunting for her little girl. “After a couple of weeks into school, I noticed bruising,” she says, “After about two weeks of the bruising getting worse and showing up in places that you normally don’t bruise, I made an appointment.”

“I feel like we are still figuring it all out. There are days that are not pretty. One of my favorite quotes for my family is, ‘We may not have it all together, but together, we have it all.’” – Susie Dotson

The night before Lily’s doctor’s appointment, Susie decided to google her daughter’s symptoms. Every result came back the same: cancer. Susie’s heart sank. “I took a photo of her eating breakfast before school that morning, knowing that this is what a normal day looked like before cancer.” Later that day, after five minutes of examining Lily, their pediatrician told Susie that her daughter had cancer and needed to go to the emergency room immediately. “Within 24 hours, she started blood transfusions, chemo, spinal tap, and a bone marrow scan. She has had over a dozen platelet and whole blood transfusions. She was put on high risk and only a 40 percent chance of making it the first year. She is now up to 65-70 percent.”

Lily’s fight not only took a toll on her but also on the Dotson’s marriage and Susie’s relationship with Noah. “Communication is key, and we are slowly finding that. During the heavy treatment, it was very hard to have a meaningful relationship [with David or Noah] with the high demands of Lily’s cancer treatment. But we are now learning how to heal as a married couple. I’m also loving my ‘Noah time.’ I feel like I missed a whole year of his life. I missed him.”

Lily’s treatment doesn’t end until January 2014, but the heavy treatment portion concluded last July. Lily can now do daily chemo treatments at home and go to school.20130407_bs_0015 Medium Copy

While life is far less stressful than it was a year ago, Susie says, “No matter what day it is, cancer doesn’t let you forget you’re fighting it. Once your family is hit by cancer, you are constantly in the battle…You never get to leave the battlefield.” The Dotsons still find time to be a normal family, with Lily dressing up the family Maltese, Santana, and Noah writing letters to the family beta fish: Patrick, Sandy, Rainbow Buddy, and Red Nose Clown Nose. And maybe soon, Susie and David will finally get that date night.

“I feel like we are still figuring it all out. There are days that are not pretty. One of my favorite quotes for my family is, ‘We may not have it all together, but together, we have it all.’”