But when they pulled up to the brick house in College Park with the blue shutters on Saturday afternoon, they’d never seen anything like it.
“We have a surprise for you: this is y’all’s new home,” a friend said. All five boys looked around, dumbfounded. A home of their own — the biggest Christmas surprise these boys could receive, delivered thanks to a community that made it happen.
“Through the grace of God, my babies are getting a house, and they’re going to have a Christmas,” Reese said. The boys rushed through each room: one for their parents, one for the twins, and one for the three other boys, where Joshua, 9, did a flip on his new bed. They saw the basement playroom, the kitchen stove stacked with gleaming red pots and pans, the back yard large enough for five energetic boys. And a Christmas tree, surrounded by dozens of presents from their Prince George’s community.
Finding a home for the Montagues has been a community project months in the making.
It started last spring, at University Park Elementary School, where the four oldest Montague kids attend school. Devilan Cowherd, the school registrar at the Prince George’s County public school, saw the boys mother, Porsha Reese, leaving a parent-teacher conference with their father, Randall Montague.
Montague, 31, has multiple sclerosis and sickle cell disease. Reese, 27, was walking a mile home, pushing Montague in his wheelchair and toting her youngest son, Johnathan, alongside her. In the rain.
Cowherd took in the scene, stopped to talk with the couple, and turned to Krista Atteberry, an involved parent in the school community.
“It really spoke to them, to their character, and what they wanted to do for their kids despite their circumstances,” Atteberry said. “They would be at that parent-teacher conference even if it meant walking over a mile in the rain pushing a wheelchair.”
Soon Atteberry got to know the couple and their five sunny, rambunctious kids. She learned that Montague had been hospitalized repeatedly since he was diagnosed with M.S. about five years ago, and had to give up his job as a shoe-store manager because of his health. She learned that Reese — who left high school at age 15 when she and Montague had their first child together — had spent the past 11 years raising her boys and was only now starting to think about getting her G.E.D. and finding a job.
And she learned what had become the most pressing fact in their life: They couldn’t renew their apartment lease.
Atteberry and Justin Ross, another parent at the school, went to the property management company to lobby for the Montagues. But the company wouldn’t budge; the family and Atteberry say that the manager discovered seven people living in two bedrooms, and refused to allow so many.
In the final days of the school year, the Montagues found themselves on the street.
The father was in a rehab facility at the time, his latest medical setback. Reese took her five sons there, and they stayed in his sick room until the facility told them they couldn’t live there.
The boys and Reese went to a relative in Northeast Washington’s Trinidad neighborhood, where they slept crowded on the floor in one room. Montague couldn’t stay there, because it wasn’t wheelchair-accessible. He went to a different relative’s home.
“They don’t get to see their father as much — they miss him,” Reese said. And then there’s the constraint of living in close quarters, where they have to take a special bus to get to their elementary school half an hour away, and where they’ve always felt they might hit a day when they’ve overstayed their welcome. “It’s, ‘Mommy, when are we moving?’,” Reese said. “ ‘We want our own place. We want our own rooms. We want to be able to run around. We want to be able to jump around. We want to play.’ ”
After the family had to vacate the old apartment, Atteberry and Ross were determined to find a new home for them in the College Park area. Ross combed websites and inquired with landlords on the family’s behalf. An apartment that can accommodate a wheelchair and seven people was hard to find.
His own children, ages 5 to 12, were in school with the Montagues, making it difficult to walk away from their dilemma. “Your kids will see them every day. It’s harder to let it go,” he said. “From the first moment, my wife and I realized that we’re just going to have to do something, and we might have to do something unusual to us.”
Finally, he found a house that normally rents to University of Maryland students, where the landlord was willing to offer a six-month lease to the large family, with the possibility of extending it.
Ross, a former Maryland state legislator, agreed to co-sign the lease for the family, and to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent.
The Montagues will be responsible for the future monthly rent of $1,500, a bargain that the landlord offered. They hope to manage it through a combination of Randall Montague’s disability check, donations from the elementary school community and, hopefully, Reese’s earnings from the job she has yet to find.
Ten days ago, Ross signed the paperwork. Then he called Atteberry: “Now we just need to get them in before Christmas.”
The race was on.
Atteberry asked the school community for donations and the response was dazzling: a microwave, toaster and dishes; 3 bookshelves, 11 chairs and 4 tables; 6 beds and 8 blankets; and 17 towels. One mom said she would donate everything in her pantry.
The volunteers found even more items on Craigslist, and moms in minivans spent the week before Christmas driving all over the D.C. area to pick up furniture.
“It just seems like this is what we’re supposed to do,” said Ross, a United Methodist who talked to his own children about the meaning of supporting the Montagues at Christmas. “For the folks that celebrate Christmas, for the people who share that faith tradition, the central premise is that you’re supposed to love your neighbor.”
On Christmas Eve, everything was ready. Atteberry’s husband took the five kids to a movie, then dropped them off somewhere they didn’t expect.
As the children entered the house with shock on their faces, Montague spoke through tears.
“This is where we live now, you hear me?” he said to his children. “Y’all go look around.”
They wanted to explore — and soon they would, marveling at everything from the old-fashioned alarm clock for the twins, to the giant container of cheese balls, to their very own beds covered in snowman blankets and with new pajamas waiting.
But before the boys scrambled off, first they encircled their parents. Seven pairs of arms wrapped all around each other beside the Christmas tree.