Agencies, officials come together to build new home for family

People, agencies went above and beyond, matriarch says

Associated PressSeptember 4, 2012 

RICHMOND — "Move that bus! Move that bus!" the crowd chants when a new home is about to be revealed from behind a large bus on a popular home makeover television show.

The lucky family in need had been living in unsuitable conditions, so when contractors, the community and cameras come together, reality-TV magic happens.

That's not exactly how it went for Deborah Johnson, 56, of Richmond, but the journey that landed her and her five children in a new home was "mind-boggling," she said.

Through the help of several individuals, the Kentucky River Foothills affordable-housing program and a loan from the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, the family began moving last month.

The brick house on First Street has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large fenced-in back yard with big trees, a hand-built storage building and laminate flooring.

"I want to put a plaque outside this house that says: The house that love built," Johnson said.

In July 2008, Johnson welcomed her brother's five children into her home under difficult circumstances. Her brother was unable to care for them, and the children's mother was in and out of jail because of a drug addiction, she said.

At the time, Morgan was 6 months, Jacob was 2, James was 5, Ashlee was 6 and Shelby was 7, and they had been left in the care of their sister Kiesha, 15, for more than a week. A suspicious landlord called Child Protective Services after visiting almost daily in search of the rent money, only to find the children alone each time.

The children's stay in Johnson's home was meant to be temporary.

"A couple times (CPS) would find a home for them, but then that would fall through," she said. "Eventually I told them, 'They're not going anywhere, they're mine now.'"

Earlier that same year, Johnson had lost her husband, with whom she shared a double-wide trailer on Berea Road.

The new family shared the three-bedroom trailer, but because of financial difficulty since her husband's passing, it was becoming dilapidated, with holes in the walls and a back porch that began to separate from the exterior.

Morgan, the youngest child, has severe allergy and asthma problems. All of the carpet had to be ripped up from the home. Construction dust and debris from nearby U.S. 25 triggered severe asthma attacks that sent Morgan to the emergency room on several occasions, Johnson said.

Something had to be done to improve the situation for the children, she said. Not only does she care for the five children, she baby-sits for her three grandchildren as well.

The $1,500 a month she drew in assistance and her widow's pension was not enough to buy a new home, she said, but she wanted to improve the one she had.

She thought back on a day when she was holding up a line at a grocery store, "trying to be spend-thrifty," with five children in tow, she said.

Johnson apologized to the lady in line behind her. The woman replied, "Take what time you need. If I can do anything to help, let me know."

Johnson thought that was unusual for someone to offer, but she came to find out the woman was Connie Lawson, then the mayor of Richmond.

So when Johnson began looking for help, she started by calling the mayor's office.

The new mayor, Jim Barnes, directed her to the city's community development coordinator, Mike Russell.

Russell visited Johnson's home shortly after her call.

"He kept walking around the house and shaking his head," Johnson recalled. "Eventually he said, 'Ma'am, you don't need improvements, you need another house.'"

"I told him that I needed a lot of things, but I have to make do with what I have," she said, never expecting to hear from him again.

A few weeks later, Russell and Jimmy Stone, director of housing development with Kentucky River Foothills, visited Johnson and told her they could begin the process of getting her into a new home.

Because it was difficult for Johnson to find a sitter for all the children, Stone and Russell would take the paperwork and orientation videos to her.

"Sometimes Jimmy would walk around with a baby on his hip," she said.

This past Christmas, the people at the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises chipped in to buy presents for all the children.

"All of the people that made this possible didn't just do their job, they went beyond their duties," Johnson said.

The children also were able to remain at Daniel Boone Elementary, she said, where the teachers and staff know about the family's situation and always offer "an extra hug or reassurance." Shelby had been failing in school before Johnson gained custody; she is now on the honor roll.

The new house on First Street is a "life makeover" for the children, who never had any real place to call home, Johnson said.

When they lived with their mother, the children were moved constantly, she said. Often, they had to leave behind all their toys and belongings when landlords kicked out the family for not paying rent.

"The biggest thing for these kids is that they have a permanent home and they know they never have to leave," Johnson said.

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