Rain leaked in through holes in the roof of the 1918 home.
Inside, 10 children shared one bathroom. They had no closets. Light switches didn't work, so they used lamps. And they unplugged the stove to use the microwave.
One day, Mama Joy — that's what the kids call her — was sitting at her kitchen table when a ceiling panel fell and hit her on the neck.
The house was falling down on top of Ruby Brown in December, when she was the focus of a Tampa Bay Times Holiday Hopes story. Her aunt had raised her and left her the house. So when her three nieces came to her with their children, she took them so the mothers could get their lives on track.
With all those children, she needed plenty of things, but most of all, a safe, clean home.
It was a big ask.
• • •
When Tim Mann read about the circle of life that led Ruby Brown to take in all these children, he heard God's voice. Mann attends Relevant Church, less than a mile from Brown's home. For the past six years, the church has renovated a home for a single mom for Mother's Day, somewhat similar to the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition TV series.
Mann and Pastor Paul Wirth met with Brown. Typically modest, she told them about one door that scraped the floor and some outlets that didn't work. They could tell the home needed more.
They decided Mama Joy's house would be their seventh.
• • •
Spend a little time with Brown, who is 67, and she will teach you about patience. And faith.
Every morning she prays: "God give me the strength and I'll do it."
Over her bed a license plate had read: Praise the Lord. Under it she had written: I am healed I am whole.
Last Saturday, she led the children in a prayer and a song in her sister's living room.
"What's his name?" she said.
"Jesus," they responded in unison.
The children were spilling over with excitement. They had moved out of the home a week earlier and watched from across the street where they stayed with Brown's sister as church people went in and out of their home.
It was almost time.
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," Brown said.
Brown reminded the children to show love and appreciation. And to not be wild.
Pastor Wirth lined them up, oldest to youngest.
Then he high-fived Brown and said "C'mon sweet darling."
They walked across the street.
• • •
"Give me two minutes," yelled Tammy Thorne, wearing a utility belt around her waist and hanging a plaque that read "Faith" on the kitchen wall. "Don't let her in."
Thorne had started shopping weeks earlier for bathroom towels and princess and sports-themed bedding.
Someone saw a three-stack bunk bed on Pinterest and a church member made it for the boys' room. Thorne and many others had spent much of the week at the home, ripping out and remodeling until late into the night.
They paneled the living room ceiling with wood and hung a cross on the wall.
Now just a few more plaques remained in the kitchen. Hope and Peace.
Move a whiteboard in the hallway down a few inches.
Set a bowl on the table stacked with oranges and red and green apples.
• • •
Brown stepped past wet paint on the front porch and slipped off her shoes.
"Oh, thank you Jesus," she said. "Where did you get all this space?"
Two bathrooms. No extension cords anywhere. Her bedroom, she proclaimed, simply gorgeous. "Fantastic," Brown said. "I've not had a closet in a long, long time."
In the last room, the kitchen, all turned around with new appliances and counters and a big table in the center, Brown raised the blinds over her kitchen sink. Dozens of church members were in her yard, smiling and waving. About 140 people had pitched in on the makeover.
Mama Joy stepped outside and the church enveloped her, laying hands on her as they prayed. She thanked them and told them the kids would never forget this.
"You're part of our family, now," Pastor Wirth said. "Welcome home."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.