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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published September 06 2010

Extreme life makeover: Couple to help more foster kids with larger house

Moorhead carpentry students will build one couple’s dream house this year, allowing the family to host up to eight foster children at one time.

Mike and Sandi Puhlman of Moorhead are licensed to provide treatment foster care for young people who have special needs.

They can host up to four children at a time, but due to a shortage of foster homes in the area, the Puhlmans want to double that.

“We fill up pretty quick,” Sandi said, adding that there’s often a waiting list of children.

Mike designed the nearly 7,000-square-foot home, with one whole floor devoted to living space for teens they host through Lutheran Social Services.

They purchased some land north of Moorhead to construct the house and have been trying for more than two years to find grant funding or other means to build it.

Then they heard about Minnesota State Community and Technical College carpentry students who were looking for a special project.

In recent years, first-year carpentry students have built two spec homes, and the college puts them on the market, said John Centko, dean of academic affairs.

This year, the more than 30 students will spend their class time building the Puhlmans’ home, allowing the couple to save money on labor costs while giving the students valuable experience.

“It’s quite the house,” said instructor Tony Schouteh. “They found out by going through us they could afford to do what they wanted to do.”

Three girls and one boy ages 14 to 17 now live with the Puhlmans in their four-bedroom, two-bathroom home.

Besides more than doubling the square footage, the new house will have separate bathrooms for the boys and girls.

“I’m not doing anymore therapy about bathroom usage,” Sandi joked.

They also will have a larger kitchen, where Sandi enjoys teaching the kids to cook, and the kids will have their own living area to watch TV or play video games.

But the main advantage is the new home will have plenty of space for up to eight kids.

Sandi, a former correctional officer who also worked as a counselor in a locked treatment facility for teens, decided she could have a greater impact on teens through therapeutic foster care.

She and Mike went through a six-month pro­cess to become li­censed and have been providing care for about four years.

The Puhlmans have had a total of 18 children stay with them, with the length of stay ranging from two weeks to 3½ years. Each of the children has a mental health diagnosis, and they may have had truancy or drug and alcohol issues.

“We’re giving them the tools to walk away from the past,” Sandi said.

The Puhlman foster home is unique because they prefer to host older teens, including some who may “look bad on paper,” and they will host both boys and girls, Sandi said.

The couple will meet with the carpentry students for the first time this week. They expect to break ground this fall and have the house completed in May.

Lynn Kotrba, treatment foster care coordinator for Lutheran Social Services, said she is recruiting more foster homes in Moorhead. Her agency gets about 50 treatment foster care referrals each year in Moorhead and can accommodate about half of those children, she said.

“If the house was built now, we’d probably be able to have it full,” Kotrba said.

How to help

Lutheran Social Services is recruiting families for its treatment foster care program. Call Lynn Kotrba at (218) 236-1494.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590