February 16, 2006

Building a Miracle

capThey couldn't go home.                                                                                                             [Main Story]

Rain water had seeped through their walls, then mold crept in. Invisible to the eye, mold spores swept through their homes, making the air first unsanitary, then unbreathable.

Two Adventist families, one in Washington state, one in Northern California, had both literally been kicked out of their living spaces by mold. Both had prayed and prayed, desperate for a miracle.

And then, the miracles came, in the form of ABC television crews and hundreds of volunteers in hard hats. A reality TV show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, was the mechanism God would use to meet the needs of the Kirkwood and Sears families. Here are the stories of how two families lost their homes, then gained back more than they'd ever dreamed, and how their faith sustained them through it all.

A Bold Prayer
1505 EM2Michael and Dawne Kirkwood loved their home in Port Orchard, Washington. But with their four daughters--Burgundi, now 19; Jael, 11; Zion, 7; and Praize, 5--sharing a single bedroom, they decided it would be even better if their empty concrete basement could be converted into usable space. They hired a contractor, who began the work but skipped out with their money before the project was completed. They had no idea problems from the botched renovation had just begun.

Piles of construction materials lying throughout the basement began to absorb moisture, which moved into the home's walls. One day, the couple noticed a bubble in the linoleum of their bathroom floor. The bathroom walls had become heavily damp, so they immediately moved their 15-year-old son, Michael Orion, out of the adjacent bedroom and into the living room. The dampness spread, along with an increasingly strong scent of mold. One by one, the family members relocated their beds into the living room. Dawne says she was amazed by the character of her children, who never once complained.

Huge fans of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition--they've never missed an episode--the Kirkwoods submitted an application to the show. There was no response. One day, Dawne asked her daughter Jael if she thought they might be selected for the show. It broke Dawne's heart when Jael replied, "Mom, have you ever wanted something so bad that you don't think God loves you that much?" The two cried together, and decided to send another videotape to the show. Again, nothing happened.

But rather than feeling defeated, Jael got extremely motivated. She'd seen an EMHE episode featuring "Sweet" Alice Harris of Watts, California, and found Harris' contact information on the Internet. She called Sweet Alice, who encouraged the girl and suggested that she contact her city mayor. Shortly thereafter, with a bit of help from mom Dawne, then 10-year-old Jael made an appointment with Port Orchard mayor Kim Abel. The mayor was moved by the Kirkwood's situation, and contacted EMHE on their behalf.

The mold eventually made it impossible for the Kirkwoods to breathe; the family's lungs and eyes would burn when they entered their house. They packed up a few of their belongings and moved into a nearby Best Western hotel.

Weeks, then months, went by. Hoping to provide a sense of stability for their children, Michael and Dawne did their best to keep a regular routine: prayer in the morning, eating breakfast together, helping the kids with homework, worship in the evening. Dawne even declined the hotel's maid service--she wanted to clean the family's room herself. "The ability to hold on to what you know creates normalcy. For the children, what was normal was us all being together," says Dawne. "The constant was God, family, worship. That's what made going through this doable."

1505 EM2With hotel costs eating at their dwindling finances, and no foreseeable end to the mold problems in their home, a scary thought was looming: What if they ended up homeless? A year had passed since they'd submitted the EMHE application. Still, the family continued with a daily, specific prayer: that EMHE would select them. Dawne encouraged her children to dream of the home God was planning for them, even having them create a collage with magazine clippings of how their new home would look.

One morning in November 2005, there was a knock at the Kirkwood's hotel room door. Dawne was overwhelmed to see EMHE host Ty Pennington standing there. The family's prayer had been answered.

"I really believe God is looking for people who are willing to pray bold prayers," Dawne says. "I told my pastor's wife last year I wasn't asking God for anything small anymore. I'm not asking God for any more crumbs because he owns the bakery, and I need to at least ask for a loaf of bread."

Coming Home
"A healthy person couldn't live here," observed EMHE's designer Paul DiMeo on inspecting the Sears family's Martinez, California, home. The walls in the Sears' garage were so waterlogged, DiMeo was able to peel the drywall away with his bare hands, as if it were wet papier-mache. Water had pooled under the house, causing mold to grow between the walls. The mold had even grown outward through the walls, so that it was visible on the stucco outside.

So it was certainly no place for a sick person to recuperate. Seventeen-year-old Jhyrvé Sears and her mother, Karen, were far from their Northern California home and longing to return. They were renting an apartment in North Carolina to be near Duke Medical University, where Jhyrvé was receiving treatment for Krabbe Disease, a rare genetic disorder that affects the brain and nervous system. Jhyrvé had been given a cord blood transplant at Duke, which saved her life but compromised her immune system. Doctors told Karen Sears that Jhyrvé couldn't return to California until she had a private plane to fly on and a sterile home to live in. Even entering the Sears' mold-infested home could be a death sentence for Jhyrvé.

1505 EM2"We left [California] literally within 10 days of [Jhyrvé's] diagnosis," Karen Sears told ABC camera crews. "I really didn't know how we were going to get home."

The family was already struggling financially. Karen had quit her job as a teacher's aid in California to care for her daughter. She was struggling to pay the mortgage in California, plus apartment rent in North Carolina, along with steep medical bills. She could only pray that God would provide a way to bring her daughter home.

Even the EMHE team knew this was a huge challenge. To create a hospital-quality home environment for Jhyrvé, they first had to level the old house. Crews began construction from the ground up, bringing special materials to create an uber-hygienic home: mold-resistant sheet rock, double-paned windows, and a Hyper-HEPA filter that actually made the air inside the Sears' new home purer than a hospital's. The EMHE team contacted former NFL star Jim Kelly, who was able to provide a private plane for Jhyrvé's trip home. (Kelly is intimately familiar with the challenges of Krabbe Disease--his own son Hunter succumbed to it last fall.)

On her homecoming, Jhyrvé was greeted by her friends from the Pleasant Hill Adventist Academy choir. They serenaded her with ?The Old Irish Blessing,? one of her favorites. Tears slipped down the Sears family's cheeks as the song's words rang out strong and true. They were home--at a new home that was both beautiful and safe. God had indeed held them in the palm of his hand.

Holly Vicente Robaina, a regular contributor for Today's Christian Women magazine, writes from Playa del Ray, California.