It takes a village to raise a child, and for one Story County foster family, being a part of someone’s village is “the most rewarding experience.”


And while being a foster family is no easy task, especially during a pandemic which causes additional challenges, Nathan and Tricia Stouder, of Huxley, are encouraging area families with a little extra room in their homes and hearts to consider stepping up to the plate.


“Can you love on them? Can you support them? Can you give them some encouragement and guidance … to make their life a little easier while they’re going through something hard? I think most people think it takes extraordinary feats, but it doesn’t,” Tricia Stouder said. “We are extremely ordinary people, we just figure out ways to say yes.”


The Stouders became foster parents in 2018, and “caring for kids is something that has always been on our hearts, and it’s something that’s been important to us for as long as we’ve been together,” Tricia Stouder said.


In some ways, the process of making it a reality started when they adopted their daughter, Annabelle, through a private agency, she said.


“We learned through the circumstances of our daughter’s adoption a little bit more about the legal process of caring for kiddos,” she said. “I think we both became very aware of sort of the privileges of our own upbringing … With that, we wanted to make sure we were doing the best we could to help kids and do whatever we could to sort of be a stability point for (them).”


They attended a no-obligation orientation in 2016 through Four Oaks Family Connections, an organization contracted by the Iowa Department of Human Services to recruit, train, license and support Iowa’s foster and adoptive families.


Emily Easton, a recruiting coordinator for Four Oaks Family Connections, said the orientation gives prospective foster families an opportunity to “learn about foster care and have a place to ask questions.” Though the pandemic has made in-person sessions impossible, “we are still offering those orientation classes online.”


By fall of 2017, the Stouders were ready to begin the 10-week series of classes which would lead to the couple becoming licensed foster parents in January 2018.


During the classes, Easton said, “we talk about things like how to partner with birth families, and the value of that connection, appropriate ways to manage behavior with kids who come from hard places or backgrounds of trauma, and helping kids who are struggling with attachment.


“We just really try to focus on really practical parenting things that will help our kids coming from hard places to be successful in their homes.”


Those classes are also taking place online during the COVID-19 crisis, Easton said.


After completing the 10-week class, Four Oak Family Connections’ caseworkers visit the prospective family’s home to “talk with the family, get to know them, look at their home to make sure it’s safe.” Those home visits are still happening, though some are being done over video.


“We want to make sure we are doing our due diligence and make sure all families are a good fit,” Easton said. “(Home visits) may look a little bit different, but they are definitely still happening.”


Foster families needed in Story County


Easton said 1,729 Iowa kids were referred to and matched with a foster home in 2019, not including kids placed in residential care or with family members. Forty of those children were from Story County, and 345 children were from Polk County.


When recruiting foster families, Easton said they look for a wide variety of applicants.


“You can be single, you can be married, you can rent a home or own a home. You can be any age 21 and over. We need a wide variety of foster parents, so I would encourage everyone that’s interested to come to an orientation session,” Easton said.


Easton said it is completely up to the foster family to decide which children are placed in their home, and “we recognize that different families are going to fit with different kiddos, and vice versa, kids are going to feel more comfortable in different families.”


In Story County, specifically, Easton said the biggest need is for families willing to take sibling groups, “because we really don’t want those siblings to be separated whenever possible,” and families taking older kids including elementary-aged and teenagers.


The Stouders foster babies and toddlers, and had their first foster child placed in their home at the end of February 2018. Since then, the family has been in, according to Tricia Stouder, “the perpetual toddler stage.”


And while having multiple toddlers in the home has been a “fun parenting challenge,” she said, it’s all made easier by having a solid support system to lean on, and the knowledge they are being a part of someone else’s support, too.


“There are a lot of things that you get to share with (the kids) as they grow up in your home. From birthdays and first steps, you’re a part of that. Sometimes, that’s bittersweet because you are doing that instead of their biological family,” she said.


“That’s why its also important to be kind of supporting their biological family as they’re going through the loss of some of those moments — sharing it with them and keeping them involved as best you can.”


Navigating as a family through COVID-19


The main goal of the foster system is reunification with birth families, unless a judge decides that it is not appropriate, Easton said, so keeping the birth families involved is vital.


However, COVID-19 has created an obstacle in doing that, as well.


“We do a lot of video chats,” said Tricia Stouder, who explained the birth family’s visitations with their children have been taking place virtually to prevent the spread of the virus.


“For us, as foster parents, it means that we’re sitting down with a toddler and doing video chats a few times a week with their birth family. That’s always challenging.”


And outside of visitations, the pandemic has also caused some stress for the Stouders when it comes to working from home; Tricia works at Iowa State University and Nathan works for U.S. Bank in Ames.


“You’re just working at home with two kids running around, and it’s a challenge. We’re taking them and trying to give them structure while also trying to work full-time,” Nathan Stouder said.


But still, even considering all of the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed, he said the biggest challenge is always when it comes time to say goodbye to the children they’ve cared for.


“It’s a roller coaster of emotions that comes with foster care,” he said. “Even though it is foster care and you know what you’re getting into, you get connected to these kids and it’s difficult (when it’s time to say goodbye.) That’s probably the hardest thing for me, but it’s what we signed up for and we love it.”


Easton, who is a foster parent herself, agreed that it is the biggest challenge. However, she said, it’s also the biggest reward.


“I’m gonna love these kids with all that I’ve got for the time that they’re with us, and then I am going to send them on their way. I know that, with that goodbye being so good for the kid, it’s still a loss for me,” Easton said. “I am going to continue to say yes to that personal loss over and over again because I believe that those kids are worth it.”