A home that’s a haven

Part 2 of 2: Family togetherness is important to Klobnocks as they open their hearts to foster care children

Niece Alicia Drozdoski, sons Andrew Rossi and Sylvester Rivers, and Michael and Wendi Klobnock gather in the kitchen before lunch. “Nobody starves here,” says Wendi. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

WHITEHALL — Wendi and Mike Klobnock opened their home to boys in the foster care system in 2003, and it’s been open ever since.

Mike works for the state Department of Transportation, and Wendi manages the home: a clean, three-story A-frame with a wraparound deck and a downstairs apartment, a big garage and a wide lawn bordered by young trees. The Klobnocks purchased the house last year and have been making improvements ever since.

They’re both from downstate — Wendi grew up in Yonkers — but they moved up to this green, hilly land in the Champlain Valley after 9/11.

At any given time there may be a half-dozen kids living there, but the family includes a lot of people, including extended family, grown kids and grandkids. Friends and relatives are always dropping by, and holiday meals are huge affairs.

Although kids “age out” of the foster care system at 21, the Klobnocks don’t change their relationship once their boys become adults.

“We let them save their money, help them look for an apartment, help them get set up,” said Wendi. Sons Andrew and Sylvester are renting the basement apartment. Others live nearby, and most of the others keep in touch and come home for holidays.

“I can’t have these kids come into my home and treat them differently than my own,” said Wendi.

The Klobnocks do everything as a family, including date nights and vacations. The chore lists on the refrigerator include everyone living in the house, including them. For instance, everyone in the house cleans the bathroom once a month because chores rotate. Wendi teaches the kids to do their laundry and make meals. Mike gets them doing yardwork.

“We all live in this house together, and we all work together,” Wendi said.

“When a kid comes into foster care, they feel unwanted and everything else,” she said. “If a child is happy and they feel a part of things, they’ll do better.”

Family togetherness extends to vacations. Once a year, the clan goes tubing. They park a car at the destination point, then drive upstream to embark. At the halfway mark, they picnic. Wendi explains that they try to save their tax refund so everyone can go on vacation. She and Mike wouldn’t dream of going without their kids.

Last year’s trip to Florida was no exception. “When we went down, we had 22 people,” said Mike.

The Klobnocks are kind, but firm. They offer love and a dose of reality, as both parents come from challenging backgrounds.

“Growing up in the city, it’s tough,” said Wendi.

“I’ve always told my kids, ‘Everybody in this house has issues. Even me and Dad, we still struggle with our demons.'” Wendi said.

“When a kid comes into my house, I tell them, ‘I don’t care what you’ve done before. All I care about is how you are from this day forward. I’m here to help you better yourself. You can change your life. You have that power. Or you can sit and wallow in self-pity and be stuck. Feeling sorry for yourself won’t get you nowhere.”

Miriam Hadden, Essex County’s Family Court attorney, calls Wendi “a superstar parent.” The Klobnocks’ home is in Washington County, but Essex County has to send foster children outside its boundaries because it doesn’t have enough foster homes for its caseload, which has nearly doubled in the last two years due to the opioid drug epidemic.

“A lot of the boys who came into her home have gotten a lot better,” Hadden said. “They just need good parenting. They just keep coming back, and they all call her Mom.”

Like others involved with the system, Hadden emphasizes that it’s not about the money — foster parents receive about $400 a month per kid.

Wendi Klobnock agrees. “You really have to love kids. If you don’t, this is not something you should be doing.”

At the center of it all is the partnership between her and Mike. The two of them talk out disagreements between themselves, privately. They support each other and bounce ideas off each other, and they back each other up.

“I’m the pussycat, but I’m also the tough guy,” Mike said.

“There really is something to be said about it,” Wendi said thoughtfully. “Every kid I’ve had in my house has come from a single parent.”

As part of the certification process, foster parents learn they have an obligation to support the families reuniting. Many kids do come for a time and return to their families; others keep ties with the old while becoming permanent members of this new family. But no matter where they came from, once they’re here, the Klobnocks will do everything they can to make sure their lives get better.

“There’s a lot of rewards watching a kid make something of themselves,” Wendi said. “I’m proud of all my kids. They’re very, very self-sufficient.”

Part 1: Foster kids squeezed out of the area

(Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Mike Klobnock’s father has died. The Enterprise regrets the error.)