It only took Michelle Exline half a second to say yes.
When her best friend since high school, Anne Hendrickson Nelson, asked her to be the guardian of her two young teenagers, Exline said it wasn't a hard decision.
Nelson died of cancer in January, less than six months after her husband, Graig, also died of cancer. The Savage couple left their two children in the care of Michelle and her husband, Joel, bringing the Exline clan from six to eight.
"We look at it as a gift to us. We have Anne and Graig with us every day," said Michelle. "Not everyone gets to have that."
Michelle and Joel, of Lake-ville, have four children of their own: Madeline, 19; Kelsey, 18; Taylor, 8; and Benjamin, 4. Add Zach and Dylan Nelson, 15 and 13 respectively, and four energetic rat terrier dogs, and their split-level is a full house.
"Financially, we're pretty tight. We don't have a lot of extra, but you're just gonna do it. You're just gonna make it happen. You just take these kids, you give them a life, and hopefully raise them like their mom and dad would like," said Michelle, a manager at the Lund's Normandale Village in Bloomington.
To help raise money for the expanded family, a few of the Exlines' family members and colleagues are teaming up for a benefit in their honor on Saturday at the Knights of Columbus in Shakopee.
There will be food, a silent auction and a Wii Guitar Hero competition. The food is being donated by Lunds and Byerly's, where Joel works as a maintenance engineer.
The goal is to raise enough money to buy the family an eight-seat minivan, said organizer Emily Kane of Burnsville, who is Michelle's cousin. The Exline family now has to take two cars when they travel together.
"I just think there should be more people in the world like Michelle and Joel that would be so generous to take in two kids, not to think twice about the financial burden or the stress of taking on two more kids, especially a 13- and 15-year-old," Kane said.
Michelle said she's in awe at how many people care and want to help the family. "What do you say to somebody who does all that? Thank you doesn't seem enough," she said. "We're just touched."
In August 2006, Graig was diagnosed with melanoma, according to Anne's brother, Tom Hendrickson. Anne discovered that she had lung cancer two months before Graig died, in July 2007.
Graig and Anne had talked about what would happen to their children if both died. Initially, Zach and Dylan were to go to their uncle Tom, but it was later decided that it would be in the teens' best interests to go to the Exlines' instead. The couple was younger, Hendrickson explained, and had children close to Zach and Dylan's ages.
Although Anne underwent chemotherapy and radiation, shortly before she was to undergo surgery, doctors found out that the cancer had metastasized to her brain. Anne died on Jan. 4, just two days before her 41st birthday. Her children, with the exception of her 22-year-old son Scott Hendrickson-Howard, moved into the Exline home in Lakeville shortly thereafter.
It was the first day of school and Michelle, Taylor, Dylan, and Zach crowded around their kitchen island preparing Taylor's "Me" bag.
Dylan decorated the brown paper bag, while Taylor ran upstairs to grab four things that describe herself: a rock from her collection, a wolf figurine, a Princess Leia bobblehead, and a Relay for Life t-shirt. Zach stood quietly in the background watching the last-minute project.
Although Zach and Dylan now act with the familiarity that comes with being part of a family, it wasn't always that way, Michelle said.
Zach, Michelle explained, had a hard time adjusting to all the changes in his life. Dylan had an easier time, but it still took her a few weeks before she felt OK using things in the house without asking for permission.
Michelle said the biggest challenges were figuring out how to parent your friends' children and help the teenagers grieve: "How do you comfort them when their whole life has changed?"
Michelle and her family tried not to change everything in the teens' lives immediately. They would often drive Zach and Dylan to Savage to visit old friends and attend youth group at their old church every Wednesday.
Dylan said the best thing about living with the Exlines is that there is always someone to hang out with. Although it initially took her a while to adjust to sharing a room with a younger sibling, Dylan said, she has since moved into her own bedroom thanks to a donated two-bedroom addition on top of the garage that was arranged by Hendrickson.
Michelle said she's glad the teens are feeling more comfortable and have accepted the Exlines as their family. That's not to say, however, that Anne and Graig have been forgotten. The family often talks about the couple; their Lakeville home is dotted with pictures of Zach and Dylan's parents.
"What an honor to us for our friend to leave us her most prized possession, her kids. That's a big deal. And we're gonna do it right," Michelle said. "They're in a family. They're our kids and they're going to turn out great. All of them will."
Jeannine Aquino • 952-882-9056