On Friday afternoon, 30-year-old Shontell Johnson lived in a rundown house in South Oak Cliff, where she took care of 13 children: six of her own, three from a neighbor with a drug problem, and four from her sister, who's currently in prison. The kids were sleeping on mattresses on the floor and sharing two bathrooms. Some of them had no shoes, and wore two or three pairs of socks instead. There were holes in the walls. Nobody had enough of anything: food, blankets or coats.
"The state of the house was absolutely deplorable," says Margaret James, executive director of the Metropolitan Dream Center.
A while back, a desperate Johnson called the Dream Center, a faith-based nonprofit, and asked for help. James called council member Dwaine Caraway, then introduced him to Johnson and the children during an event at Cedar Crest Community Church. Which is why a small army of volunteers from a variety of businesses and city agencies spent the last 72 hours totally giving the house a do-over while Johnson and the kids stayed in a loft at South Side on Lamar.
A few minutes before 2, when the family was due to arrive back home, James stood at the door, pointing out the house's new features: re-done carpet, flooring, new appliances in the kitchen, new furniture for the living room and each of the four bedrooms. A group of volunteers stood in the hallways and in the four bedrooms, tearing the wrapping off new mattresses and putting the last touches on the shiny, dark-wood bunk beds the children will sleep in. Someone ran a vacuum cleaner over the floor. In the garage, a dining room table had been set up, large enough to seat everyone.
"Shontell has a big heart, "James said. "She had arms big enough and a heart broad enough to take care of all these children." The volunteers, she said, "have done a marvelous job. So much love was poured into this house. We praise God for touching the lives of so many. Mr. Caraway has been a major instrument."
Caraway stood a little ways behind her, in the kitchen. He pointed out a new portable griddle as a volunteer plugged it in. "I came here on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and one of the older girls was cooking," he said. "The kids wanted pancakes, so she was making them one at a time in a tiny skillet."
"This is beyond Christmas," he added. "This about quality of life for 13 children who will be upstanding citizens of our city." Not to mention a fourteenth child: Johnson's imprisoned sister is pregnant and due soon. When the baby is born, it will come to live with them as well.
"Dear God, talk about a miracle," said Diane Gibson from the City Attorney's Office, one of several city staffers who came by for a look. "This don't look nothin' like it did on Friday." She came out onto the porch with Caraway and a horde of reporters, watching the rain on the street and waiting for the family. She nudged Caraway. "Look out, Jesus!"
Caraway looked at her, slightly spooked. He scanned the sky for lightning. "Watch out," he said, not quite joking. "We gonna get struck."
Finally, a little after 2:30, the family came hurrying up the driveway, under the cover of several volunteers. The older kids looked excited; the younger kids, bewildered. Johnson took a look at the mass of people gathered on the porch and in the open garage, by the newly set table, and burst into tears. Caraway put an arm around her. "Y'all got the best mama in the world," he said to the kids. "She loves you." He looked back at Johnson. "You OK?" he asked. She nodded, unable to speak.
The Rev. Gene Moseby from Words of Faith Missionary Baptist Church said a brief prayer over the children and their mother, then led them all inside through the garage. Johnson walked a few feet, past a row of new bikes, looked into the garage's new freezer and broke out in a fresh wave of tears. She made it into the living room, stopped, and cried again. "Thank y'all," she finally managed to say.
"Ooh, look at our TV," one of the older boys remarked, not touching it.
"I feel like cryin' right now," a little girl of 6 or 7 seven confessed. She grinned instead, flashing her braces. On the kitchen counter behind her were two laundry baskets filled with groceries: spaghetti, rice, beans, pasta, Jell-O.
Caraway gathered Johnson and the kids around him. "We still got a lotta work to do, OK?" he said. He thanked the volunteers and everyone else who contributed: Bailey's Furniture, Friendship-West Baptist Church and the Dream Foundation among them.
"Shontell, all this belongs to you," he added. He looked at the kids. "Take care of this house," he said.
"Yes, sir," they chorused.
"Don't think you're gonna play that Xbox all weekend," he said sternly. "Don't make me come over here and take this TV away."
"No, sir," they said.
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A few moments later, Deion Sanders suddenly wandered in through the garage. He waved, posed for a few photos, patted the kids on the head and greeted their mother. They all hung back, too shy to speak to him. One of them coughed.
"Cover your mouth," someone admonished.
Out in the yard, a little boy twirled joyfully around with an umbrella stamped with pictures of cartoon characters. In the house, surrounded by a crowd of reporters, Johnson struggled to speak.
"This is Christmas," she said finally. "This is more than we ever thought."