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Shelter in any storm

Family enjoys highlights and endures heartbreaks in their own home

By Julie Gurnon

Over the past four years, the Belton family has experienced moments of profound sadness and exhilarating joy.

Lakevia Belton exchanged single life for motherhood when she adopted her seven minor siblings after their mother died in June 2009. HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL/EZRA MILLSTEIN

One of the happiest moments was on May 3, 2012, when the family of eight moved into their new Habitat for Humanity home in the Liberty City community of Miami, Fla.

“Move-in day was exciting,” said Lakevia Belton, 31, who heads the close-knit household. “We did it rapidly, because we were just ecstatic to get from there to here.”

The Beltons had been living in a large public housing complex for more than a year. The family didn’t venture outside much after 6 p.m. because the threat of gun violence was too great.

Their new home is one of 10 built during Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami’s blitz build in February 2012. The houses sit on two adjacent blocks, one of which faces an elementary school and a park. Each home has a front yard, a back yard and a porch.

Now, the outdoors is a place of fun and fellowship — not fear — for the Belton family.

Their greatest joy is simply being together. They might not have been if Lakevia had responded differently to a tragic event that happened three years earlier.

The circle of life

In May 2009, 27-year-old Lakevia had a degree in criminal justice, her own apartment and a steady job as a detention officer for a private contracting firm. After working there for several years, she was interested in becoming a mediator or a federal probation officer.

She was also looking forward to the arrival of a new sibling, which would make her the oldest of nine children born to her mother, Donna Belton. The pregnancy was high risk because of her mother’s diabetes, so Lakevia was concerned when her mother was admitted to the hospital with chest pains that month.

Samuel Belton, the youngest of seven children, is a healthy, happy 3-year-old with new things to discover and energy to burn. HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL/EZRA MILLSTEIN

The siblings rejoiced when the family’s newest member, Samuel, arrived safely, only to grieve deeply for their mother, who died of pneumonia three weeks later at age 43.

Her mother’s death meant Lakevia had to make an unexpected, life-changing decision. Seven of her eight siblings — four boys and three girls ranging from newborn to age 16 — would be split up among foster care families unless she could intervene. Lakevia’s eighth sibling, Dankeis, was in his early 20s and living on his own.

“I decided to do what I had to do,” Lakevia said. “We all grew up in one household. We were always together. That’s why I wouldn’t let the kids get separated. All they knew was how to be together.”

Those first few months were the roughest, she said. The stress of planning a funeral, caring for her siblings and reconstructing their lives was overwhelming. She barely slept or ate. But she prayed often, summoning the strength to move forward one day at a time.

Other people were sources of light during those dark days.

Relatives stepped in to help. Her employer gave her four months off to focus on everything that needed to be done immediately and arranged for her to work an earlier shift, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., so she could be on the same schedule as the children.

Staff members from the New Horizons’ Family Safety Net – First Responders, who help Miami families in crisis remain intact, connected Lakevia with resources, including counseling services for the children, and eventually referred her to Habitat Miami.

Lakevia also contacted an attorney and began taking the legal steps to adopt Berneisha, 16; Nathaniel, 15; Donna, 14; Arturo, 9; Linda, 7; Dawan, 5; and baby Samuel.

About five months later, Lakevia went before a judge and became the adoptive mother of her seven siblings in November 2009.

New beginnings

As the new matriarch of the family, Lakevia helped the kids adjust and settle back into a routine.

At that time, the family still lived in the unsafe apartment complex and spent most of their time inside. With eight people sharing a space, Lakevia created an open dialogue night every Friday, a strategy based on her mother’s open communication policy, and one she carried over to the Habitat home.

“Basically, it’s just an open floor so everybody can express the way they feel safely — things they like and don’t like between one another and within the household itself.”

Afterward, the children take turns selecting a family activity for the weekend. Watching a movie or bowling are two favorites.

If making the transition from single woman to mother of seven was difficult for Lakevia, she doesn’t show it. Being the oldest in a large family probably prepared her to some degree, but she also has a calm and steady, almost serene quality about her that most parents would envy.  

Lakevia doesn’t take too much credit for the smooth transition.

“They are good kids,” she said. “They make it so easy for me. They have a lot of manners, they respect what I have to do, and they do what they’re supposed to do.”

One responsibility the kids couldn’t make any easier for her was completing the 250 hours of sweat equity required to become a Habitat homeowner.

Lakevia’s application was approved in April 2011. She earned most of her sweat equity on Fridays and Saturdays and completed the rest during the intense, 10-day blitz build in February 2012.

“There were some rough days out there,” she said. “You didn’t know what you’d be up against — landscaping, tiling, painting, installation. You name it, we did it.”

All the hard work paid off when a staff member from Habitat Miami phoned in April and told Lakevia, “You’re ready to close.” Although a year had gone by since she applied for the home, she still needed a quick reality check.

“I’m like, ‘Really? I’m ready?’ Wow. We are really taking this step forward to a better life, a better environment,” she said.

A safe haven

The Belton family is just a block away from an elementary school, where three of the children are students, and a park, where the boys enjoy playing basketball. HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL/EZRA MILLSTEIN

Life for the Belton family has improved since moving into their Habitat home last May. The kids love playing outside and shooting hoops at the nearby park. Lakevia enjoys the friendships she has formed with other Habitat homeowners, and she says the affordable mortgage has enabled her to save more money. And then there’s the home itself.

“It’s comfortable,” she said. “You look forward to coming home.”

Having a safe haven helped the family cope with another tragedy, in September 2012. Only four months after the family moved in, Lakevia’s brother Dankeis, 26, was killed in a shooting in Miami.

“My mom’s funeral was sad, but my brother’s funeral was beyond sad,” Lakevia said.

The family is still grappling with the loss, but moving forward.

Berneisha is in her first year of college at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Nathaniel will graduate from high school this year, and Donna is on the basketball team at her high school.

Arturo, Linda and Dawan are all attending the nearby school, which they love. Arturo and Linda were students of the month in September, and Dawan, who had trouble adapting to his previous school, “has done a 360,” Lakevia said.  

The two oldest boys, Nathaniel and Arturo, are participating in the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, an initiative in the Miami-Dade County school system that help young boys and men set and reach goals to become healthy, responsible adults with respect for themselves and others.

Samuel, the inquisitive, gregarious 3-year old, is thriving in the Early Head Start Program. His infectious smile makes the family’s happy moments even sunnier, and makes the sad times a lot easier to bear.

All together under one roof, the Beltons are prepared for whatever comes.

Julie Gurnon is the NSP2 writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity International, based in Americus.