TOMS RIVER, N.J. – There are 12 handmade gingerbread houses on the dining room table in the Kolas home. One for each member of the household, and two extras.
Think your house is bustling this holiday season? Try serving dinner to eight growing boys and girls, ages 8 to 20. Try wrapping Christmas presents for a full week. Try juggling this parenthood writ large and a career while your house is under construction because your ever-expanding family has outgrown it.
“It’s nutty, very nutty,” mom Rebecca Kolas said. “When we go around at the food store people look at us like we’re crazy for buying so much food.”
Rebecca, 50, never envisioned this. As the birth mother of three boys, she wanted to adopt a girl. That girl had five siblings who needed a home, and bit by bit, the Kolas family took them in.
“Our heart broke for them because of all the hardships these children endured,” Rebecca said. “They’ve been in and out of various foster homes their whole lives. We wanted to keep them together.”
During this season of giving, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more meaningful gift.
“I feel like everyone needs to give back in some way,” Rebecca said. “This is our way of doing it.”
‘I love it here’
In 2013, Rebecca and husband Robert Kolas decided to become foster parents to 2-year-old Ella Fuller through the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. Upon learning Ella had a 1-year-old brother William, they took him in, too. In 2019, Rebecca and Robert adopted them both.
“I’m happy they took me an and adopted me because it’s a warm home and I love it here,” Ella said last week.
Last year, Rebecca learned that Ella’s older birth siblings became parentless after the sudden death of their father. So she and Robert agreed to foster three of them. A fourth joined the household this year, in September.
“I’m very happy and thankful,” said one of the newer arrivals, 15-year-old Emma Fuller. “They didn’t have to do any of this, but they chose to. They kept us all together and that’s a really good thing.”
Rebecca’s birth sons, 20-year-old Ryan Germann and 17-year-old Dylan Germann, split time living at Kolas house and staying elsewhere with their father, Rebecca’s ex-husband. While with Rebecca, they graciously relocated to the basement to make room for the Fuller siblings (Ryan spends much of the year away at Susquehanna University).
“This has taught us how to be generous,” Ryan said.
That said, everyone needs their space at times. It’s especially important now because they’re all attending school virtually. A four-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot house wasn’t cutting it. Hence the addition in progress — two bedrooms and an expanded bathroom above the garage at a cost of $120,000.
Rebecca is managing attorney of the Community Health Law Project, which advocates for people with disabilities. Robert is employed by the Tom River Public Works Department.
The family has asked New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency for assistance in creating more space.
“My home is mortgaged as much as possible to pay for it,” Rebecca said.
‘Just regular people trying to make a difference’
Friends of the Kolas family marvel at what they’ve done.
“(Rebecca) still gets her Christmas cards out before I do, and I’m retired,” said Sue Brown, a longtime friend and former colleague who lives in Union Beach. “She is a mini-superwoman.”
Toms River resident Hilary Nizamoff, who used to babysit Rebecca’s birth sons, said she was in awe of the family’s most recent expansion.
“When she adopted the first two (Elle and William), they were younger; these are teenagers with full-blown personalities,” Nizamoff said. “To extend themselves like this to keep that family unit together, it’s a great story.”
Robert Kolas acknowledged it’s not for everybody.
“A bunch of my friends said to me, ‘You’re nuts,'” he said.
Rebecca doesn’t see herself as a superhero.
“We are just regular people trying to make a difference,” she said. “I would love to inspire people to become foster parents because we really need more foster parents.”
There are pull-your-hair-out moments — spats between teens, battles over the living room TV, $400 grocery bills. But those bumps are outweighed by the excitement of a full dinner table, the joy of watching these kids develop real bonds with each other, and the satisfaction of knowing you changed the direction of a young life. In this case, several young lives.
Each of the gingerbread houses is a little monument to that.
“The more people in our house, the more love there is,” Rebecca said, “and there’s nothing better than that.”
Follow New Jersey columnist Jerry Carino on Twitter: @NJHoopsHaven