CORSICA — For Jody Van Zee, family isn't necessarily related by blood.
The mother of eight and Dakota Christian Elementary teacher talks about each of her children with the same compassion and love — from 5-year-old chatterbox, Jacklyn, to the kind-hearted, helpful 14-year-old Brandon.
It's impossible to tell four of her children were adopted until Van Zee points it out.
Van Zee and her husband, Bruce, had four biological children and wanted more, but had trouble conceiving, so they began fostering children. It was through fostering the Van Zees met Jacklyn, 4-year-old Terrence, 2-year-old Isaiah and 19-month-old Marlee, their four adopted children. Marlee is the family's most recent addition, adopted in June.
The four were long-term placements in the Van Zee home, a handful of dozens of children the couple has fostered since 2012.
"The love that they give and the blessing that they are is really the greatest thing," Van Zee said. "Sometimes I wonder how we got so lucky to be the ones to get these kids in our lives. They're in the foster care system, and we of all people get to have them in our lives. It's humbling and it's truly amazing."
The Van Zees are one of 41 foster families in the Mitchell area. The 41 families are more than enough to house the 25 foster children in the Aurora, Davison, Hanson, McCook and Douglas counties, which are all covered by the Department of Social Services' Mitchell office. But Department of Social Services Communications Director Tia Kafka said there's always room for more because the number of foster children needing homes is on the rise.
In June 2013, 15 children needed foster homes and that number has steadily increased through 2016, when 26 children needed foster families. Luckily, the number of foster families has been on the rise, too.
In 2013, there were 27 foster families in the area, and the number of families involved rose through 2016, when 42 foster families were involved.
Despite having more foster families than foster children, Kafka said there is a need for more families willing to keep siblings together, foster teenage children and American Indian families to care for American Indian children.
Foster parents must be older than 21, have sufficient income, pass a background check and attend a 30-hour foster parent education and training program.
And Van Zee said all of the work is well worth it.
"Fostering has been such an incredible journey for us," Van Zee said. "We have cried with, laughed with and loved on so many amazing children."
The Van Zee family's story is unique, as two of their four adopted children — Terrence and Isaiah — have Down syndrome, bringing their own medical challenges. But the joy they bring to the family far outweighs any challenges, Van Zee said.
Since adopting Marlee in June, the Van Zees have stopped taking in foster children for the time being, as their home is full and hectic, which is both good and bad, she said.
Brandon, one of the couple's biological children, would take more siblings if his parents decided to foster more children, and he's been a large part of the family's success, Van Zee said.
And while Van Zee misses the excitement of beginning a new journey fostering a new child, she's happy with her family composition and hopes anyone with the urge to try fostering gives it a chance.
"Sometimes you know it's just not going to fit ... but when it's right, it's the most incredible experience to give somebody a home," she said.
More than one way to help
Sometimes a pan of lasagna can solve a lot of problems.
Darcy Burger Scheetz, of Parkston, has fostered 17 children in her home in the past five years, and tasks as simple as making dinner can be difficult.
"Some people think the only way to help kids in foster care is to be a foster parent. That's so far from the truth," Scheetz said. "They could take a pan of lasagna to a foster family, because then that night that foster mom doesn't have to cook, or she can focus on the meltdown happening on the bathroom floor. It's just something everyday."
More volunteers are needed in the foster care community, Scheetz said, and there's more than one way to help.
One example Scheetz said is to become certified for respite care. Described by Scheetz as a "weekend babysitter," respite care is temporary relief care designed for foster children and their foster families. It can range from a few hours of care provided on a one-time basis to overnight or extended care sessions.
But to find a respite care provider, even to allow Scheetz one night away, is difficult.
More than anything, Scheetz said there needs to be more people willing to help in any way shape or form. And the timing for more foster parents and other volunteers couldn't be more perfect, Scheetz said, as this Sunday is known as Stand Sunday. Stand Sunday calls on people across the world to stand for children and families in foster care. The movement is celebrated every year on the second Sunday in November.
Scheetz currently has two foster children under her care, and can't take any more at this time, leaving one fewer family to help area foster children, she said.
"It's a tough position to fill and there is a need. I'm almost sure there's a need in every community in the country," she said. " ... These kids in foster care, they're real little humans. This is happening in our community and these kids need more people in their corner."