Mom and 14 Kids Get A Home of Their Own, With a TV Show's Help

Jackson and some of the 14 children she cares for wait with ABC's "Extreme Makeover" host Ty Pennington. Ten of the children are those of her deceased sister.
Jackson and some of the 14 children she cares for wait with ABC's "Extreme Makeover" host Ty Pennington. Ten of the children are those of her deceased sister. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

After nearly four years of waiting, a week of frantic building and a few takes for the cameras, Felicia Jackson and the 14 children she cares for finally have a place to call home.

More than a thousand people turned up for the final scene of ABC's television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" yesterday, in which the crew let Jackson in on a remarkable secret: She is now the owner of a brick, 4,800-square-foot home on a 1.3-acre corner lot in Poolesville, nestled in the rolling farmlands of northwestern Montgomery County.

For Jackson, a former correctional officer who suddenly came face-to-face with poverty after she vowed to take care of her dying sister's 10 children in addition to four of her own, it was an incredible reversal of fortune, the kind of story made for television. Only in this case, it was television that made it possible, along with the help of hundreds of volunteers organized by Classic Homes of Maryland.

For Classic Homes, which typically builds semi-custom houses, it was a first encounter with television.

"When they told us we'd have four days, we said it wasn't possible," said Amita Jain, the vice president of sales and marketing and co-owner of Classic Homes. "When they said they weren't going to pay for a single thing, we said it definitely wasn't possible."

That was May 22, Jain said. But then they heard Jackson's story, and by June 22, they were committed to build in a week the kind of home that typically takes six months.

The county has difficulty finding residences for large families, and a plan to consider helping Jackson by providing her a large home in the Hillmead neighborhood of Bethesda had stirred controversy. The County Council voted 5 to 4 June 10 to reject the Hillmead proposal, in a debate that came to symbolize tensions over how the county should meet its affordable housing needs.

"This is a happy end to what I thought was a pretty sad story," said council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who was among those in favor of the Hillmead plan.

Jackson's quest began with a promise to her sister, Cassandra Jackson. Cassandra had terminal cervical cancer and feared leaving her 10 children without a mother. Jackson vowed to care for them.

Cassandra died in 2004. In an interview last week, Jackson was plain-spoken about her life since then. "We've been moving every year to a different house," she said. "I had to resign from my job with the government. And I got divorced."

They lived in hotels mostly, spread across a few rooms. It has gotten easier, she said, as some of the youngsters have gotten older; the children range from 4 to 18 years old. Nevertheless, "there are a lot of complications involved," Jackson said. "Cooking for 14 kids. Driving 14 kids around. Going to 14 kids' school meetings. You name it."

She had a supporter in Eric Kuhn, a Montgomery teacher who had worked with Jackson's children. Four years ago, he began lobbying to get Jackson on the show, which will take a home and completely remodel it for a deserving family.

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