OREM -- Sitting in the family's modest northwest Orem home, John Thill was looking around the living room, envisioning Christmas morning and trying to explain what the holiday is like in the Thill household.
"It's crazy," said the father of 15 -- two biological, 13 adopted from foster care or from LDS Family Services. "You can't usually see the floor, with all the gifts and the wrapping paper. And it's expensive," he added with a smile. "But we have been very blessed. We do not go without much of anything."
Thill's wife, Cayce, said the couple, who just celebrated their 20th anniversary, love to talk about their children.
The oldest is Kodey, 19, followed by Josh, 18, Aleceeya, 18, Jacob, 12, Nathan, 12, Jonathan, 11, Andrew, 11, Zach, 10, Kloey, 9, Lydia, 9, Gallie, 9, Ben, 8, Joseph, 8, Katie, 6, and Abby, 5.
Three of the Thills have graduated from Timpanogos High School. Kodey and Aleceeya attend Utah Valley University, and Josh is in basic training with the Army Reserves as a biomedical specialist. Jacob and Nathan attend Orem Junior High, and the other children go to Bonneville Elementary.
Cayce is a full-time student right now, too, with just one year left to complete an elementary education degree. She also does some substitute teaching in the schools.
Thill has a master's degree in public administration, and, as a foster/adoptive family recruiter for the nonprofit Utah Foster Care Foundation, is passionate about the need for more parents in the community to do what his family is doing -- providing the essentials of structure, consistency, boundaries, routines and love that contribute to the predictable environment that children need in order to thrive and feel safe.
John and Cayce Thill are from Michigan. In 2003, they moved to Orem, and in 2004, they became licensed for foster care. Over the years, they have shared their home with a total of 56 foster children -- 10 from out of state, and 46 from Utah.
In his work with the foundation, Thill helps families overcome the difficulties and fears involved in foster care and adoption, and supports and mentors them through the process.
"As I sit down with families," Thill said, "I tell them that I can probably answer any question, and address any concern they might have, from personal experience."
Thill said it is important that families realize there is a need for foster and adoptive care. The ultimate goal is to provide stability, then to get children back home with a rehabilitated mom and dad. In this area, he said, that is what happens 46 percent of the time. If after a specified time that outcome is not possible, adoptions take place, "more often than not," but people need to be open to the idea of working toward reunification.
Thill served in the Army in Germany for a number of years and said that his military background has helped him to be more organized and to pay more attention to detail.
Not that it's a perfect comparison.
"If you try to run a household like a military institution, it will fail," he said.
The Thills have a chore chart that they follow. Each of the children has an age-appropriate morning chore and an after-dinner chore, plus they are all responsible to make their own beds, clean their rooms and take care of their laundry each day.
Their after-school routine is for the children to have a snack, then do reading or homework and help set the table for dinner. They then have free time until dinner, help clean up with rotating chores, and after varied evening activities, always set their clothes out for the next day. Setting out the clothes is something that is done every day in the household, even if there is no school the next day, simply because it takes so much pressure away and maintains a good habit, the parents said.
Discipline is handled through a counselor-recommended "level" system. The better a child's behavior is, the higher the level, and the more privileges he or she earns. The system teaches choices and accountability.
"John and Cayce struggle with the same things most parents do," said Adam Whitaker, a close friend and neighbor who met the Thills when both families were in the military and were serving on the same base in Germany. "But, despite the challenges common to all, they have the capacity to acknowledge those challenges and to find solutions. They tackle head-on the things that are tough for parents, and because they are so hands-on, they work through those things more quickly, and their children are the beneficiaries."
As a family, the Thills especially enjoy Friday pizza and movie nights, camping trips and going to Disneyland. When they go on trips together, Cayce often has the children wear matching-colored T-shirts so it is easier to keep track of everyone. Whenever they disembark from the family's 23-passenger van, people stop in their tracks, stare, begin bobbing their heads to count the crew, and even ask what kind of group or organization they belong to.
"Sometimes the kids will say, 'Why don't they just know that we're a family?' " Cayce said. "People have tried to guess who the biological children are, but they never guess right. Every one of these kids feels like ours."
The Thills' friend Britta Dastrup became acquainted with the family when she first moved to the neighborhood about six years ago, and they invited her to dinner.
"They're incredible. What else can I say?" Dastrup said. "Their home and their family -- there is so much structure -- they are so organized, yet there is flexibility, too. They are grateful for all they have, and they look for opportunities to serve others. They could easily say, 'We have enough on our plates,' but they don't say it."
For more information about foster care, go to www.utahfostercare.org or call (877) 505-KIDS.