Family Shares Experience With Multigenerational Living

by | Mar 2024

Left to right: Jacob Webb, Jennifer Webb, Tayvius Martin, Marcella Kotula, Daniel “DJ” Martin, Sharon Martin Kotula, Tim Martin

Left to right: Jacob Webb, Jennifer Webb, Tayvius Martin, Marcella Kotula, Daniel “DJ” Martin, Sharon Martin Kotula, Tim Martin. Photo: Chris Emeott

Multigenerational living is all about taking care of family.

Simply put, caring for others is just part of Sharon Kotula’s DNA. The Maple Grove resident is a member of the sandwich generation, still caring for children at home with the added responsibility of helping her elderly parent, but her situation is unique in that the children currently under her roof are the second set of children she has raised—foster children whom she adopted later in life.

It’s a rather complicated story from the outside looking in, but to the 69-year-old, it just makes sense. There was a need for care, and she stepped up to the plate. It’s something she’s done for decades. It’s a way of life. “There’s certainly no lack of purpose,” Sharon says.

Sharon Martin Kotula

Sharon Martin Kotula

Growing up with five siblings, Sharon and her family moved from Minnesota to Hawaii at an early age. Her father had landed his dream job, helping the Vietnamese rebuild their war-ravaged country, but it was too dangerous for the whole family to move to Vietnam, so they opted for Hawaii to be closer to him. After six months in Hawaii, they moved closer yet, this time to Thailand. They would live in Thailand for two years, and it was there that Sharon’s teenage eyes were opened to the world.

On weekends, the family would visit local orphanages and sometimes take kids out for an afternoon of fun. “That’s what planted the seed,” Sharon says.

Her mother, Marcella Kotula, agrees. “They saw how different the world was compared to the United States,” Marcella says. “It taught them compassion.”

That experience stuck with Sharon as she grew up. Married at 19, Sharon had two kids, Jennifer Webb (now 48) and Jacob Webb (now 46), over the next four years. Sharon and her first husband divorced when the kids were still young, and she began doing foster care at 23. “It was emergency care, relieving group homes,” she says.

Some kids stayed in her care longer than others. One foster daughter, who lived with her from the ages of 10 to 12, kept in touch over the years, and when she got pregnant at 20, Sharon stepped in again to help. “It was a rescue situation,” she says.

Sharon was at the baby’s birth. “I was going to play the role of a grandparent,” she says. But after four months, Sharon became the baby’s foster parent. “I ended up adopting DJ at 18 months,” she says. “I was 51.”

Sharon had remarried and had the full support of her second husband, Tim Martin, to embark on this journey. “My husband deserves a halo,” she says.

After a few years, the couple decided DJ could use a sibling, so they took in Tayvius, an 8-and-a-half-year-old, and officially adopted him at age 10. The boys, born 21 days apart (DJ is the older one.), are now 17 and experience neurological challenges caused by prenatal toxic exposures. “It was very, very challenging,” Sharon says. “It wasn’t smooth sailing by any means.”

Sharon has become a vocal advocate for the boys, seeking out resources to help them and taking educational courses. Even on the hard days, she is comforted by the knowledge that these boys came into her life for a reason. “They need me,” she says. “And they’ve come such a long way.

“You can’t be an effective foster parent without giving your full heart,” she adds.

On top of raising teenagers, Sharon cares for her 92-year-old mother and helps when needed with her husband’s parents, who are also in their 90s.

During the height of COVID-19, Marcella left her home at Rose Arbor in Maple Grove and came to live with the family for four months. She has since gone back to Rose Arbor, but Sharon says there may come a time when she returns, though Marcella is determined to stay living independently as long as possible. “Her plate is full as it is,” Marcella says of Sharon.

After raising a family and tackling careers in real estate and nursing, Sharon has learned how to manage a full plate. “On the days when it can be mentally exhausting, that’s when I do artwork,” she says, noting she enjoys photography and painting as stress relief. She says being on the same page as her spouse also makes a big difference. “We really have to have each other’s backs, be in tune with one another,” she says.

Meet Marcella
Marcella Kotula

Photo: Sharon Kotula

Marcella Kotula was born in 1931 and grew up the oldest of six children, living on a farm in central Minnesota. She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse where she loved to read and dreamt of becoming a teacher.

With her mother on her side, Marcella convinced her father to let her go to college. She attended St. Cloud State University, where she received her teaching degree. Her first teaching job was at an elementary school near Red Lake, Minnesota. She taught first through third grades, while her husband, John, who was also the principal, taught fourth through sixth grades. “It was wonderful,” she recalls.

After a year at that school, the couple moved to the Iron Range in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, for a year. Over the next eight years, Marcella would birth seven babies. “I was just busy, momming and teaching,” she says.

When her husband took a job in Vietnam to help rebuild the country, the family had the opportunity to move to Hawaii to be closer to him. “Of course, the kids said, ‘Yeah,’” Marcella says. For six months, they lived in Hawaii, enjoying the sun and the surf, before moving to Thailand.

The next two years were spent in Thailand. “We loved it,” Marcella says. “It was a whole new culture. I had to learn to drive on the other side of the road.”

In 1984, Marcella loaded up their camper van for their next teaching assignment in Bogotá, Colombia. “The school was on the side of a mountain,” Marcella says. “I taught third grade. We were treated very well there.”

One by one, their kids began to move out, but Marcella and John continued to take teaching assignments around the world. “Instead of the kids leaving home, it was mom and dad leaving,” she says. Their impressive resume includes teaching stints in The Gambia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. “We were in the Middle East for five or six years,” Marcella says. “When the news comes on now, it’s very personal. I still know people there.”

Marcella taught for 30 years before retiring. When she looks back on it all, she is still amazed. “I wonder how I did it all,” she says. “I was just a shy farm girl.”

She credits John for getting her to take those first steps outside of Minnesota. “When we got married, he told me, ‘We’re going to travel. We’re going to see the world.’” John delivered on his promise and then some.

In 1999, after 49 years of marriage, John passed away from ALS. For a few years after his death, Marcella continued to travel the world, taking pilgrimages to Portugal, Spain and Italy.

“People ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and I say, ‘The world. The world’s my home really,’” she says.

Though she doesn’t travel much anymore, Marcella looks back on her travels fondly. “Even at night I dream of these places,” she says while encouraging others to live their dreams. “Find your passion, and go for it. Anything is possible.”

An Expert Weighs In

Tetyana Shippee, PhD., is a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a social gerontologist with a focus on long-term care services and supports. Shippee says families looking at entering into a multigenerational living situation should consider privacy needs, financial issues, communication styles, space allocation and potential conflicts around roles and responsibilities.

Shippee says there are keys to making multigenerational living work, including “flexibility and compromise to accommodate diverse needs and preferences; maintaining clear communication and ensuring that everyone’s voices are heard; and regularly assessing the effectiveness of the arrangements and making adjustments, as necessary.”

When it works, multigenerational living can be a beautiful thing. Shippee knows this firsthand. “My parents and I lived with my grandparents in Ukraine until I was 6, and it was an extremely important experience to build my appreciation for the wisdom of older adults,” she says. “It fostered a very close relationship between me and my grandparents to this day, including with my grandma, who just turned 90.”


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