Since 1982, Heartland Family Service has celebrated its annual Salute to Families Awards. They honor four southwest Iowa families and four Nebraska families for their efforts to make a difference in the categories of Community Service, Leadership, Challenged and Successful, and Commitment to Family. The families were nominated by the public.
The event for the Iowa families was held Nov. 14. Four Nebraska families will be saluted Thursday at the Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, when a Family Week Advocacy Award also will be presented.
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On the refrigerator are a chore chart, weekly and monthly calendars of school and after-school events, and other essential information for running a family of 14 people. In the dining room, two tables create one long table so everyone can sit and eat together. Not that eating together happens all that often when you have 12 kids between the ages of 7 and 17. There are sports practices, dance lessons a couple of nights a week, show choir and other music practices, church youth groups and Scout meetings to fit in.
But Robert and Thresia Hettinger of Papillion, who will receive the Heartland Family Service Commitment to Family Award on Thursday, make sure the entire family does have time together at least twice a week. It's on the calendars: Sunday dinner together and a family night of devotions, games and food on Mondays.
How this big family came to be is a tale of love and generosity.
In 2006, Robert's estranged sister, who lived in Plattsmouth, gave birth to her 10th child not long before dying of cancer. Robert and Thresia, already the parents of five, agreed to take in the six youngest children. Eventually, after serious discussion and prayer, the couple decided to adopt their six nieces and nephews. Their natural children agreed whole-heartedly — truly the deciding factor, Robert said.
With the adoption finalized in 2009, the family now includes Breana, 16; Nicolaus, 15; Makenzie, 14; Sydney, 14; Garrett, 13; Hannah, 13; Anthony, 12; Kaleb, 11; Caitlyn, 9; Cadence, 9; and Andrew, 7. And one of the adopted children's older brothers, Preston Struckmeyer, 17, now lives with the Hettingers also.
Some of the children are the same ages, which is fun, they say. Breana, Makenzie, Garrett, Kaleb and Caitlyn are the biological children. Nick, Sydney, Hannah, Anthony, Cadence and Andrew are adopted.
Getting to school each day is a collaborative affair. The younger children walk to Patriot Elementary. Robert or Thresia carpool with other parents to get the seventh- and eighth-graders to Papillion Junior High. Nephew Preston drives the older children to Papillion-La Vista South High School.
The kids are active in school and church groups, dance lessons, sports, Scouts and other activities. Keeping dates straight can get complicated, but that's not the most difficult thing about raising all these kids.
For Thresia, it's “making sure I spend individual time with each of them, give them the time they need.”
Robert, 45, who works for Millard Public Schools, credits his wife, 42, for making it all work. “She's incredible.”
She said she had intended to get a job, but then three of the kids got sick at one time and she realized she was more needed as a mom than a wage-earner.
It sounds like life could get chaotic, and they say sometimes it does. But there never have been any regrets.
And it helps that the Hettingers have family nearby. They also have support from friends and their church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Their house — which is big enough for all of them — was a gift from God, the couple said. It was a foreclosure house, which made it affordable.
Money is tight, but there always seems to be a helping hand. “People are so generous,” Thresia said. In addition to a couple of fundraisers, there have been donations of clothing, food or other things people think the family will need.
Robert agrees the family is blessed, especially with the kids.
“Even with all the challenges, the children are amazing,” he said. “They just get it. They love each other so much.”
You can tell by talking to the children that they do indeed like being together and value Monday nights. The usual sibling irritations arise, but they like always having someone to talk to. One of their favorite things is going on family trips (all 14 fit into the family van). They visit historical sites, the zoo or museums, and every summer they go to Texas to stay with friends.
The kids all agree on one thing. “Life is never boring.”