HARRISBURG — Tim Hughes is sitting at his 16-seat kitchen table eating a slightly burnt grilled cheese sandwich.
Kids to his right and left are pelting him with questions.
“Where have my socks gone?”
“Can I have a pear?
“My finger hurts, can you pop it?”
He gets up to help one of the younger ones, leaving his food unattended. It's the perfect opportunity for one of the older boys to pretend to pour Tabasco sauce on his sandwich.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Tim says mid-tackle.
From across the room, his wife chuckles to herself.
“Our motto around here is to stay sane,” she says.
Joining a big family
Tim and Kristi Hughes are house parents at Coyote Hill Christian Children's Home, an on-site foster care community tucked into 200 acres of woody hills 20 miles north of Columbia.
They are among the four couples who look after the neglected or abused children living temporarily in one of four houses on the site.
Coyote Hill differs from many foster care organizations; it doubles as a ministry, where faith and professional counseling are integrated into the structure of everyday life.
On average, a child who arrives at Coyote Hill will stay for 14 months, time enough for relationships to be built within each family.
“They end up fighting and playing just like siblings,” Kristi said. “At the end of the day, though, they do watch out for each other.”
In addition to four children of their own, the Hughes serve as temporary parents to eight others — four boys, four girls — whose ages range from 9 to 15. The family recently welcomed four new teenage boys, doubling the food budget.
“Our oven gets a lot of love,” Kristi, 33, said. “A lot of times, even with how much we make, the boys are still hungry.”
During an average dinner, the Hughes family consumes at least 5 pounds of meat, 2 pounds of vegetables and a half gallon of milk.
Coyote Hill is also a recipient of weekly food bank donations— including fruit and granola bars — which serve as important staple items and snacks once the four casserole dishes have been all but licked clean.
“It’s crazy,” Kristi said. “These kids eat us out of house and home.”
Multiple leaps of faith
Kristi Hughes was nearly 8 months pregnant with her fourth child when she and Tim first interviewed with Coyote Hill in 2011.
While working in Springfield as a pastor at Tri-Town Baptist Church, her husband was approached about the house-parent position.
The Hughes already had a bit of experience as foster parents, but they had never taken on more than one child at a time.
"I didn’t really think it was for us at first,” Tim said.
But because of their involvement with youth ministry, the couple was already comfortable with teens. The job at Coyote Hill would be a 2-year commitment with duties that included taking care of foster kids, as well providing a home full of love and support.
A week and a half after their first interview in late September 2011, the Hughes were asked to visit Coyote Hill for a second time. At that point, they were touched by the ministry and the close-knit community.
"It was so nerve-wracking," Kristi said. “We didn’t know what we were going to do with the images of these kids burned on our brains and our hearts for the rest of our lives if we didn’t get offered the position."
The second interview occurred on a Wednesday, and by the weekend, the Hughes were unloading their belongings into Hubbell Home, a spacious, ranch-styled home named in honor of a family active in the Coyote Hill community.
“They (the Coyote Hill administration) went out on a leap of faith with us,” Kristi said. “We had three young kids and were expecting a baby, so we already had a lot on our plate.”
The biggest reward
Every child who comes to Coyote Hill has faced some form of emotional or physical neglect. For the Hughes, helping a child through this struggle is both their biggest challenge and their greatest reward.
This dichotomy is evident in the case of a bright-eyed 13-year-old who was placed in the Hughes' care after her mother contacted Coyote Hill during a difficult time for the family in fall 0f 2011.
Brooke Sanuw will return to her mother at the end of May, but before she leaves, she will sing and share her testimony in the church Coyote Hill families attend.
Before coming to Coyote Hill, Brooke said she coped with anger and trust issues, but her foster parents, mentor and counselor have helped turn her life around.
“My favorite thing about Coyote Hill has been the people,” she said. “I’ve been here long enough that I can help the kids who are younger than me. I’ve been through the same thing as them, and I know what it’s like to feel alone.”
Coyote Hill was a chance for her to start a new life as well as rebuild her past. The structure of daily routines and the patience of the people around her have taught her the value of consistency and patience.
Though she is nervous to return home to a new school, she said she is excited to renew her relationship with her mom and three younger brothers.
“Life isn’t going to be how I think it should be,” Brooke said. “But I’ve learned to trust that God has a plan for everything.”
The Hughes’ biggest hope is for foster kids to leave Coyote Hill with more confidence and a better understanding of healthy family relationships. They have seen this in Brooke.
“She’s a completely different girl today,” Kristi said. “Seeing that change in her has been life changing for me as well.”
Where does the time go?
Sometimes, Kristi swears the clocks in her house play tricks on her.
Even during the school day, she and her husband never have much downtime.
Before shuffling the kids out the front door every morning, the two eat breakfast, read devotionals and assign chores to each child. Then they begin to tackle the paperwork required for each child at Coyote Hill.
"I was blown away with the amount of paperwork that goes into our job," Tim said. "It can get overwhelming at times."
In addition to daily logs for their eight foster kids, the couple often has to communicate with case workers.
After school, the Hughes' ability to multitask is evident in their need to make sure each child is where he or she needs to be.
"When 4 p.m. rolls around, this place has a tendency to feel like a circus," Kristi said.
Between extracurricular activities, counseling and tutoring sessions, homework, dinner, bath time, story time and bed time, the Hughes' evening is crowded.
"The past two years have flown by," they said in unison. "Absolutely flown."
What lies ahead
Tim and Kristi Hughes are close to the end of their two-year contract with Coyote Hill but are talking about staying a third year. They are torn.
They love the work, but they also think it may be a relief to wake up on Saturday morning to just four children.
“Sometimes there’s that aspect where I’m like, that would be nice,” he said.
Leaving Coyote Hill, though, would be more than just packing up the house and transferring school districts.
It would mean leaving behind kids that they have come to think of as their own and a community that has embraced them since their first week.
“At the end of the day we are family,” Tim said. “We are a big, weird family. But we are family.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.