Every week, Mellissa McDougle folds 35 outfits and places them in neatly labeled fabric drawers on top of a dark green dresser.
It’s a school week’s worth of clothes for her children — her seven grand nieces and nephews whom she is raising along with her husband William in their Fort Lauderdale home of 20 years.
The kids sleep in four big bunk beds stacked on top of each other in one room. Near the door, one of the kids wrote the family name — The Williams Family — in bright colors over chalkboard paint.
It’s a struggle to keep life running smoothly for the family, which has come together during the last four years amid turmoil. The children’s parents abandoned them, so Mellissa and William have taken them into their home. The children belong to Mellissa McDougle’s niece and her husband, who were constantly unemployed and unable to provide for the children. The parents are out of the picture.
“That’s the way I was raised up,” William McDougle said. “You have to take care of family.”
That includes extended family. Last year they welcomed into their home Darryl Ross, a 35-year-old man with cerebral palsy whom Mellissa helped care for when she worked full time as a certified nursing assistant. After Ross’ only family member — his grandmother — died last year, he joined the McDougles.
The couple both worked full time while caring for the kids with no government assistance, until Mellissa got another unexpected turn in her life last July. She was forced to leave her job when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recently started chemotherapy.
But Mellissa says she doesn’t have time to dwell on life’s challenges. While her husband works in maintenance at a golf course, she tends to the daily grind — the morning rush to get everyone out the door to school on time, the piles of homework, church every Sunday. Oh, and making sure the kids have fun when there’s time.
“It’s a lot,” she said as she smiled looking at the kids watching TV on a recent evening. “But it’s OK, because it’s for their welfare.”
A short while later, she corralled the younger ones — Tiara, 9, Treyvon, 7, and Tekyrah, 6 — to finish homework before their strict 8 p.m. bedtime. She easily rattled off assignments from memory as she grabbed a plastic jar filled with sharpened pencils.
“You’ve got reading, and you’ve got math,” she says. “And it’s Tuesday, so you’ve got to do your sentences.”
It’s an average evening with the family, which could use a little help this holiday season.
Kathy Sobczak, a case manager at Broward Health — where Mellissa goes for chemo treatment — has provided her the information to seek benefits available to kinship families, a program in which extended relatives take on the care of children.
She nominated the family for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book this year after meeting them in August and applauding Mellissa’s can-do spirit.
“She never complains,” Sobczak said. “She’s so positive.”
Although they’re not ones to ask for much — they went three years without receiving any social services such as food stamps or Medicaid as they worked to support the family — this year, they would appreciate help with clothing, food or gift cards.
Since Mellissa is no longer working, they’re struggling financially this year, making it hard to get the children Christmas gifts, like games for the older kids or Baby Alive dolls for the younger ones.
And Mellissa and William would benefit from having someone to stop in to give them some respite, to help around the house with basic family essentials.
But, more than anything, Mellissa says she’d love to give her children more space in her small two-bedroom home.
“I wish I could give them another room in the house,” she said.
Sobczak says she has noticed the oldest Williams child, 15-year-old Tammeria, becoming a second mother to her six siblings. Mellissa calls the quiet and polite teenager who helps with cooking and homework a “blessing.”
Tammeria, who wants a makeup kit for Christmas, feels responsible for looking out for her family.
“I’m the big sister,” she said. “So it’s my problem, too.”
The kids’ interests run the gamut. Tracy, 10, wants to be a pediatrician. Travis, 14, loves to draw and might pursue architecture. Terrell, 13, fancies himself a future basketball player.
Even with the range in ages and personalities, the Williams children stick close together. They play, study and worship together. Some mornings, Mellissa finds all seven in one bed. For them, faith is key.
When Mellissa has a few precious moments to herself, she sneaks away to the bathroom to get lost in Silhouette romance novels.
“It relaxes me and calms me down,” she said.
But most days, there’s little respite and she keeps running. The chemotherapy leaves her weak sometimes, but it does not keep her from being a great mother, rising before dawn to start long days.
And she’s always dreaming big for her kids.
“My dream is for all of them to go to college,” she said.