May 12, 2012 6:12:08 PM
"Why did the chicken cross the road?" giggled 8-year-old Stella, entertaining her house sisters and "Mom," Kara Copes, at Palmer Home for Children in Columbus. Her audience, gathered under the gazebo on a bright May afternoon, pretended to be stumped.
"To get to the other side!" Stella laughed gleefully, proud of her "new" joke and the smiles it brought to the faces of her extended family.
It's what these young ladies do -- support each other, even if it means occasionally laughing at a well-worn punch line. It's indicative of a family dynamic housemother Kara strives to instill in her 11 charges -- all while distributing chores, listening to confidences, drying tears and teaching the fine points of separating laundry. It is part and parcel of mothering these lively, inquisitive girls aged 5 to 15, including her three biological daughters.
"I think I've wanted to be a mom since I got my first Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas when I was 5," admitted Kara, a vivacious brunette. "I used to wake up in the night and pretend she was sick, and I would have to comfort her."
Now 36, Kara more than got her wish for motherhood, and she is convinced she's exactly where she is supposed to be.
Growing a family
Kara and her husband, Seth, came to Mississippi six years ago from Michigan, where Kara was a preschool director and Seth headed shipping and receiving for a large company. They also served as foster parents for children waiting to be adopted by their "forever families."
Once they learned about Palmer Home and an opening for houseparents, the decision to move south with their two daughters, Madison, now 13, and Morgan, now 11, wasn't difficult.
"I never knew anything like this existed in the United States," said Kara of the Christian ministry that provides a home for children who, through no fault of their own, need a place to live. "We were so excited. We just really had a big heart for kids and always talked about what we could do to impact kids' lives."
The road wasn't always smooth; there were plenty of adjustments to be made on all sides as the Copes became houseparents at Swoope Cottage, one of seven cottages on the 100-acre Palmer Home Columbus campus. But with patience, spiritual strength and open arms, a family unit has gelled.
"I feel our family is getting stronger every year," stated Kara. "Seth and I both came from broken homes, so we had really talked about our views on how marriage is a lifetime commitment before we got married. We both strongly agreed we never wanted our family to grow up going through what we did."
Ironically, the birth of the Copes' youngest daughter, Katy, five years ago played a role in strengthening the bond between houseparents and the girls in the cottage.
"Katy was born after we came to Palmer, so it was really neat for the kids to go through every stage. And then when she arrived and there was a baby in the house, it was like 'Oh, we have to take care of this little person,'" Kara smiled.
Katy, who instantly became everyone's "little sister," has known no other home.
"If you ask Katy how many sisters she has, she answers '10' right away. She even went through a phase of calling me 'Miss Kara' for a while when she was very young," her mother chuckled.
With 11 young girls under one roof, there are the expected challenges of privacy and space, but life is surprisingly well-ordered in this large household.
After the general wake-up is sounded at 6:20 a.m. on school mornings, everyone meets in the kitchen for breakfast at 7 a.m. Twenty minutes later, "it's everyone out the door." The girls attend a variety of Columbus schools; the Copes' eldest, Madison, home schools.
"Second shift" begins at 2 p.m., with a busy checklist of homework, school projects and sports. Seth handles everything to do with sports and is sometimes on the road from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., picking up and dropping off girls involved in soccer, basketball, track and other extracurricular activities. "He's their biggest cheerleader," Kara praised.
The house includes eight bedrooms, five baths, two large living room areas and, of course, a spacious laundry room.
"We have a chart that has everybody's name and chores -- like kitchen or laundry," said 15-year-old Savannah, who has lived in Swoope Cottage since she was 2. Her task of choice is laundry, "because I'm good at it."
Thirteen-year-old Michelle likens homelife to college, since she shares a room and bath.
"I'll say one thing: You're never bored. You're always doing something," she said. "It's fun having kids my age in the house."
The Copes' goals include teaching the girls to be good managers of their time and responsibilities.
"It's always a delicate balance of love, discipline and encouragement, but it's true, if you train up a child in the way they should go ... " Kara said.
Almost all the girls call Kara and Seth "Mom" and "Dad."
"It's like a big family; we make no distinctions," remarked Seth, headed from the kitchen with a bowl of hearty taco soup. He's surrounded by chatter as everyone settles around the dining table, where, after a prayer, the girls tuck into supper and tell about something special in their day.
"Sometimes it's kinda like the Waltons," he grinned.
"I could never do this without my husband," Kara insisted. "He has such a great sense of humor. When there's just too much estrogen in the house, he knows when to walk away," she laughed. "He's so patient at just the right times."
Some of the girls' birth family members are involved in the support network. Kara maintains communication with each and keeps scrapbooks on all the girls, so they can share with their families.
"We're on the same side; we work together," she emphasized. "I'll never take a birth mom's place; that's not why I'm here."
Not for just today
For Kara, who dreamed as a child of the day she would be a mommy, "the prize would be to stay and be here as these girls' parent, so that I could hold all their childhood memories, all their funny stories, and they could come back as adults for holidays and Christmas."
That unwavering consistency is meaningful to young women like Savannah, who felt, when the Copes first arrived, that they would love her but eventually leave her, as had happened before.
But after six years, she now knows "that my mom and dad have my back, on the choices that I make and the challenges I face," she shared.
Yes, life with such a large, blended family can be a roller coaster at times, "but we really just focus on how God has plans for them, and how he's protected them so far, how it all fits together and all becomes a piece of who they are," said Kara. "And if I can help them put those pieces together, I think that's really special."
Being a houseparent -- especially on Mother's Day -- is an honor, she stressed.
"There are lots of great house moms here at Palmer Home, all with a unique story of their own. We're all here because we have a strong love for children and want to train them in a loving Christian environment so they can grow up knowing they are loved and that they matter. ... What a privilege to get to be a mom to those who need a mother."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.