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‘Miracles can happen’

Sandra Padilla moved in to a Habitat for Humanity house in Denver, Colorado, in June 2006 with her two nieces, Olivia (far right) and Lilliana, and nephew, Jerome.  ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra MillsteinSandra Padilla moved in to a Habitat for Humanity house in Denver, Colorado, in June 2006 with her two nieces, Olivia (far right) and Lilliana, and nephew, Jerome. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

Seven years after moving into their own house, a family thrives
By Teresa K. Weaver

Olivia, 15, is thinking of becoming a nurse. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra MillsteinOlivia, 15, is thinking of becoming a nurse. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

AURORA, Colorado — Sandra Padilla’s life has been full of twists and turns — rapid-fire changes of fate and fortune that would have derailed someone less determined.

“If you believe in God and follow that direction, miracles can happen,” she said. “And that’s what we have here.”

She points to her two nieces, Olivia and Lilliana, and her nephew, Jerome.

“They are blessings,” she said. “I had no idea how I was going to take care of them. I just knew it was the right thing to do.”

Eight years ago, Padilla became the children’s court-appointed guardian, stepping in as their parents were struggling with substance abuse. At the time, Olivia was 7, Lilliana was 6 and Jerome was 3.

Making all the necessary court appearances in Colorado Springs — a 120-mile round trip — wreaked havoc on Padilla’s work schedule. Ultimately, she lost her job and then her condo. When she was finally awarded custody of the three children, she moved them into subsidized housing in downtown Denver.

“They didn’t get to play like normal kids,” Padilla said. “They didn’t have bikes or anything, and they had to stay in a lot because I didn’t feel like we were in a safe neighborhood. That was really bothering me, but that was the best I could get.

“My goal was to get them a single-family home.”

Padilla had volunteered on Habitat for Humanity build sites for seven years, but now found herself in a position of needing a hand up. She started earning the 500 hours of “sweat equity” required to qualify for a Habitat house, and also took all the homeownership courses that would prepare her for maintaining the house.

In 2006, the family moved into their new home, which was built in a weeklong blitz by local professional homebuilders.

“When they first showed me the property, there was nothing out here but cows and rabbits,” Padilla said, laughing. “There wasn’t a sidewalk or anything. It was just a field. But I could see the future.”

Now the community of nearly 40 Habitat houses is bustling with activity, as homeowners work in their front yards and small clusters of children ride bikes and skateboard on sidewalks curving around manicured lawns.

It’s a long way from where Olivia, Lilliana and Jerome started, Padilla said.

“Just to see the kids laughing and hanging out with friends — just seeing them do normal things that kids should be doing — that’s what really makes me happy.”

‘We work better as a family unit’

Between rain showers one muggy day in July, Padilla and all three children were out in their close-cropped yard, hauling leftover stones from a neighbor’s yard across the sidewalk to be used as a border in their ever-evolving landscape.

“We’re not afraid of hard work,” Padilla said. “I teach the kids that we work better as a family unit.”

Olivia and Lilliana are soft-spoken and respectful. Olivia, who was in third grade when she and her siblings moved in with their aunt, is now 15, starting her second year of high school. She thinks she might want to be a neonatal nurse practitioner. 

Lilliana, 14, is a huge Tinker Bell fan. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra MillsteinLilliana, 14, has decorated her room with Tinker Bell decals. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

Lilliana, who just turned 14 in August, wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She practices her caretaking skills on the family’s two cats, Cuddles and Catness, and an aquarium full of fish. In the front yard, she keeps trying to get the wild bunnies to warm up to her. 

Jerome is an artist, but his aunt believes he might have some engineering instincts worth exploring.

“We call him the mad scientist,” she said, smiling. “We’ll all be in our bedrooms and hear him behind his closed door — clink, clink, clink. And then he’ll come out with something he’s made. He can see something in his brain, and then he makes it.”

All three children have had some physical challenges — asthma, skin conditions, etc. — stemming partly from their troubled early years and partly just from being children. Being in a stable home has allowed Padilla to seek medical help when needed and keep them all healthier and happier. 

Before Padilla became a full-time guardian for her brother’s children, she had earned her associate’s degree and was on track to get a bachelor’s in information technology. But the realities of supporting a family of four left her no option but to find full-time work. 

Now that the children are older and doing well, she has resumed her own education, taking classes part time at the Colorado Women’s College at Denver University. 

“Right now I have to settle for barely making it,” Padilla said. “But I know down the way, when I get my degree, it will open up more doors. I want to set an example for the kids. I can do that now that we have a stable home.” 

‘You can think about the future’ 

In the span of seven years, Padilla’s house has become a home. Comfy, overstuffed furniture and jewel-tone walls reflect the different tastes of all four family members — and a lot of hard work. 

Olivia and Lilliana share a bedroom painted deep purple, brightened with oversize decals of Tinker Bell in flight. 

“Lilli loves Tinker Bell,” Olivia said, smiling with the quiet endurance of an older child. 

Jerome cuddles with one of the family’s cat. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra MillsteinJerome cuddles with one of the family’s cat. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

Jerome’s room is a decorating mash-up of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Colorado Rockies, the Denver Broncos and Jesus. 

“This is MY room,” he said, as if there was any doubt. 

Since moving in, Padilla has reinvested every penny of income tax refunds back into the house, adding central air conditioning and most recently, a small second bathroom in what used to be a utility closet. 

On their own, Padilla and the kids have painted all the walls, put up new light fixtures in several rooms, installed low-flow toilets and created a bright blue glass tile backsplash in the kitchen. And the family’s compact yard is bursting with trees and shrubs and stone borders, all installed as funds allow. 

“We have a lot of memories here,” Padilla said. “See that tree? It was a little baby when we put it in.” 

Now the tall purple ash casts a cool shade over a quarter of their backyard. 

“When you’re homeless or going from home to home, you really can’t put your roots down and do things like go to school. But when you get a stable home, you can think about the future.”