Empty nesters: The family that farms together, fosters together
January 2021 · Foster Family Features
Every morning, Jim Zamrzla heads out the door to work on the 5,000 acres he and Stephanie farm near Holyrood, Kansas. They raised three boys and a girl on that land, each of them learning the importance of chipping in and helping out to support the needs of the family. So, when their daughter and youngest child, Taylor, prepared to leave home, the couple wondered just how much their lives would change – and how quiet their house would soon become.
“She was getting ready to graduate, and Jim and I decided that an empty house was going to be hard on me, especially with him being a farmer,” said Stephanie. “There are days when he’s gone from sunup to sundown, and I would have been alone a lot. So, we took the class in Great Bend and were licensed shortly after that.”
They’d discussed fostering before, years ago. They even completed the course. But, their kids were young at the time, so they decided to put it on the back burner and wait until their own children grew older. The idea remained in the back of their minds, though. After all, they saw kids in need every day.
“We’ve always been tied to Saint Francis,” said Stephanie. “Jim briefly worked at Saint Francis Academy in Ellsworth as a youth service worker when we were newlyweds. Then, I worked in admissions from 2008 to 2013.”
They also attended high school with Stephanie and Jerry Slaight, both employed at the Salina West residential treatment facility, where Stephanie Slaight works as director of nursing and Jerry as executive director. The four remain good friends. These connections, according to Jim, led the Zamrzlas to believe that “if we could help in some way, that’s what we needed to do.”
They checked with the rest of the family prior to making the leap.
“We talked it over in-depth with our kids,” said Stephanie. “They helped us do the homework because we wanted them to be involved as much as possible. Our two youngest kids were just moving out, and we knew they all would be coming for visits, so we wanted to make sure they would be comfortable. We even included their spouses, boyfriend, and girlfriends, because we knew this wouldn’t be about just Jim and me. We wanted to make sure it would be good for everybody.”
Licensed in October 2018 and with the family’s blessing, Jim and Stephanie welcomed their first placement, a sibling set of three. They still have them, ages eight, six, and five – two girls and a boy, and they all love the farm. Whether baking with Stephanie in the kitchen or roaming the farm, every day offers a new experience.
“I ran a bakery in Ellsworth for a while before becoming a foster parent, and I still do a lot of baking,” said Stephanie. “The kids love to be in the kitchen and see what I’m making. Homemade bread is a big thing for them; they love it. I made pumpkin muffins one day, and they ate and ate that stuff. The kitchen is the first place they go when they get home, asking ‘What’s for snack?’”
Like any farm kid, those big enough also have chores on the Zamrzla farm. The eldest cares for a couple of rabbits and helps feed the cats and dogs. Occasionally, they get to ride on the tractor and help with the calves.
“Shortly after we got them, Jim brought in this bucket calf in from the cold,” said Stephanie. “He put it in the laundry and gave a couple towels to the girls. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘this is your job for the next hour, I want you to just rub the calf down with these towels,’ and oh my gosh, that calf didn’t know what hit him. They put jackets on him, and got him warm … he was well loved.”
“They pretty much saved his life,” said Jim proudly. “Another time, we had a cow that was having trouble calving, so I had to get it to the barn. I concluded that I was going to have to pull the calf, so I had my son, Patrick, run in and tell the kids because I thought it might be something neat for them to see. So, they all came out and watched me pull the calves – she ended up having twins – so that was pretty neat for them.”
It’s episodes like those that Jim and Stephanie enjoy most, along with what she calls the “cuddles and snuggles.”
“It melts your heart when you hear ‘that was the most fun I ever had’ or ‘you make the best cookies,’” said Stephanie. “I think probably the best thing for me is when I sit down and they curl up in my lap and snuggle. Just knowing they’re safe, that you have a safe place for them … that means a lot.”
Even Jim, after a long day on the farm, looks forward to the evening when he and the children can watch “CHiPs” together on the television. He introduced the 1970s show to them in an effort to avoid having to watch cartoons all the time, and now it’s one of their favorites.
Watching the children settle in and feel comfortable has been deeply rewarding, especially since they used to fear that they were about to be taken away again every time the doorbell rang. Now, they feel at home, which is as much a reflection of the Zamrzla kids’ character as it is their parents’.
“Our support system is our kids,” said Stephanie. “They are very involved, so there are times when we’ll tag team for doctor’s appointments or school activities. Sometimes we get spread pretty thin, but everybody chips in and helps out. They all live nearby and even do some respite care on their own. I’m sure a couple of them will eventually be foster parents, too.”
That’s what families do – and as long as those three children are living with Stephanie and Jim, they belong.
“Since she first came, the middle one has always been big about who’s all in her family,” said Stephanie. “She calls us all her family. The little one does it, too. She says, ‘This is my family. I love my family.’”