This story was published in my local newspaper (Fargo Forum) this past Friday.
I believe the story speaks for itself and needs no additional comments from me -:)
Mike Nowatzki, The Forum
Published Friday, October 26, 2007
Dinner is only an hour away, but 10-year-old Brandon Mitzel is hungry.
Sitting at the kitchen counter, his math homework sprawled out in front of him, he tries to coax his mom into letting him test the Jell-O jigglers cooling in the fridge.
“What if they’re not good?” he asks.
Dana Mitzel isn’t falling for it. She continues to tie ropes of dough into pretzel-like buns as a side dish for tonight’s chili. Brandon settles for an apple to quell his burgeoning teenage appetite.
When dinnertime finally arrives, Brandon is asked to say grace.
He prays surrounded by his two brothers and two half sisters whose presence he owes to his adoptive parents.
When Jason and Dana Mitzel accepted Brandon as a foster child, they had no idea he had siblings.
Six years later, Dana says it’s weird to think that had she and Jason been able to conceive, these five children probably wouldn’t be under the same roof in West Fargo, and this close-knit family wouldn’t exist.
The North Dakota Department of Human Services will recognize the Mitzels with an award during its annual Adoption Celebration on Nov. 3 in Bismarck.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Julie Hoffman, the department’s administrator of adoption services. “Many children in foster care are not so fortunate to be reunited in adoption with all their siblings.”
Waiting for a family
Jason and Dana Mitzel felt no rush to have children after tying the knot on June 3, 1994.
One day in February 2000 while reading the newspaper, they came across an ad about foster parents.
“I thought we could give to a family while waiting for our family,” Dana says.
They became foster parents through the Professional Association of Treatment Homes (PATH), a nonprofit organization that facilitates foster care for children with special emotional, behavioral and emotional needs.
After having a couple of teenagers in their care, they were approached about Brandon, a 4-year-old from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in south-central North Dakota.
On their first visit to his foster home, they found a boy with a wildness that matched the dinosaurs on his pajamas.
“We fell in love with him,” Dana says.
Who is Ben?
Brandon had behavioral issues requiring a life of organization and structure that, as new parents with training from PATH, the Mitzels learned how to provide.
One day while listening to children’s music on the stereo, Brandon, who’d been in foster care since he was 6 months old, spoke up.
“He said it reminded him of someone he knew from the reservation,” Jason recalls. “His name was Ben, and he was a really nice guy and took care of him.”
The Mitzels tried to figure out who Ben was, with no luck. Around the same time, in the summer of 2003, they were planning to open a Rainbow Shop store in Fargo.
About three months before the move, they learned that two PATH workers from Bismarck and Fargo had linked the boys as brothers. Ben was living with a foster family in Barnesville, Minn., just 30 minutes from Fargo.
The Mitzels brought Brandon with them on their first visit to see Ben in April 2004.
Nevertheless, the brothers bonded right away, talking “a hundred miles an hour,” Brandon says.
Ben moved in with the Mitzels on Aug. 1, 2004. Dana refers to the months that followed as the “year of hell,” as they struggled to deal with Ben’s behavioral issues.
Now, “he’s not even the same kid anymore,” she says.
Ben’s adoption became final in December 2005. Meanwhile, the Mitzels were in their fourth year of trying to adopt Brandon, who was under the jurisdiction of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Three more join
The couple thought about reuniting the two boys with their oldest brother, Johnathan. But social workers told them it wasn’t a good idea because of their past history.
“We were told under no circumstances could Johnny and Ben be together. They were just like oil and water. They didn’t mix,” Dana says.
The family took a chance anyway in March 2006, visiting Johnny at his foster home in Bemidji, Minn.
“And all three brothers clicked like they were never separated,” Jason says.
Johnny joined the family permanently in June 2006 and was adopted in January. Brandon’s adoption became final in August.
The Mitzels have been assisted in the adoption process by Adults Adopting Special Kids, a collaborative program of Catholic Charities North Dakota, PATH and the Department of Human Services.
The boys’ mother asked the Mitzels in October 2006 if they would consider adopting their two half sisters, as well.
The girls, enrolled members of the Three Affiliated Tribes in western North Dakota, visited the Mitzels’ bi-level home in West Fargo’s Eagle Run development at Thanksgiving last year. They moved in Dec. 18.
Because the girls are still technically in foster care – their adoptions are expected to be finalized in November – the family requested that their names not be used.
The older of the two girls, a 7-year-old affectionately called “String Bean,” and her 6-year-old sister, nicknamed “Moe,” had lived with Johnny and Ben in the past, but never with Brandon.
All five siblings still have regular contact with their mother, and the two girls with their father, Jason says. They also try to bring the boys to Standing Rock at least twice a year to visit relatives.
“It’s an important part of their heritage, so we want to make sure they keep that,” he says.
‘A regular family’
The boys, ages 10, 11 and 12, all wear their jet-black hair cropped tight with spiky blond highlights in front. The girls could be twins if their hair was the same length. And they all wear glasses except Johnny, who has contacts.
Around the dinner table, the conversation swings from schoolwork (Ben says he’s doing well in math) to weekend plans (Mom’s taking the girls to a pumpkin patch) to Johnny hitting his sore rib again in football practice.
Between bites of chili and buttered buns, Brandon and Ben brag about how far their big brother can kick the ball.
Johnny downs a piece of red Jell-O and deadpans, “I’ve got a lot of jigglers.” He flails his limbs and the family laughs.
After dinner, the kids stick around to clear the table, do dishes and sweep the floor with their parents’ guidance.
Jason and Dana muse about how they once thought they would have two children, maybe three, but never five.
Now, they can’t imagine life with anything less.
“We feel like a regular family,” Dana says.