Single Mom & 4 Kids Start a New Life -- by Building a House With Their Own Hands


Courtesy Cara Brookins

Many single mothers struggle to build a home for themselves and their children, particularly in the aftermath of a difficult marriage -- but one unbelievably inspiring mom actually built her family's home, literally (as in by hand, from scratch!). After enduring two abusive marriages, mom-of-four Cara Brookins knew she needed to do something to bring her traumatized family together. She also knew her family needed a safe space all their own, but she didn't have enough money to buy a house -- so she decided to build one herself, using YouTube tutorials as her guide!

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That's right, computer analyst and author Brookins (and her kids, who helped to build the house) had zero construction experience when she took out a $150,000 bank loan for building materials. 

"I would say we had experience in the mindset because we considered ourselves huge DIY-ers," Brookins tells CafeMom, "even though that meant making our own earrings or painting a wall."

"I made a built-in bookcase before, I did yard work, I planted a garden," she laughs. "How much different could [building a house] be?"


Courtesy Cara Brookins

A lot different, as it turned out, but Brookins and her family were more than ready for something different when she had the idea to build a house. 

"I had been married to a man who descended into full-blown schizophrenia," she says of her ex, who "continued to stalk and terrorize" her family for years after they split. During that time, she says, when she was understandably "looking for security," she met and married a man who made her feel secure -- only to discover that he was physically abusive.

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"We went from one type of terror into another," she says.

Even though that marriage only lasted for a couple of years, it left her family "completely destroyed."

"We were in a terrible place," she says. Her older two children, Roman and Jada, were 17 and 15; her younger two, Hope and Drew, were 11 and 2.

"I had this urgency that I was gong to lose my kids," she said. "The older two were going to move away ... we were in survival mode for so many years and we hadn't laughed or communicated. I had the sense that we wouldn't have any kind of meaningful relationship in the future." 

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It was around then that Brookins and her kids drove past a tornado-devastated home in the Ozarks on a Thanksgiving road trip. Brookins got out of the car to inspect the site, and that's when inspiration struck.

"I looked inside a wall and saw two-by-fours, and I thought that didn't look much more complicated to put together than a pair of earrings or a bookcase," she says.

"I thought if I could buy a pile of two-by-fours I could make a wall, and then I could make another wall," she continues.

As the family continued on their road trip, they started talking about what their dream house would look like. 

"Once we started formulating this dream, very quickly it turned into, 'We're doing this,'" she says. "We never thought, 'Hey, we can't build a house.' At the time, because of everything we had been through, it felt like the most normal, natural thing to do -- like anybody in our situation would do the exact same thing. It was very much ignorance that made that happen. Thank goodness we didn't know what was in store!" 

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What was in store was hard work -- and lots of it. By the terms of her loan, Brookins had just nine months to complete her project, and she was working full-time. That meant lots of long hours spent hammering and sawing after she got out of work every day (and the kids got out of school), with her teenagers helping to do everything from laying the foundation to mixing mortar -- not to mention keeping an eye on her youngest, who was just a toddler at the time.

Most nights, Brookins would go back to the construction site after the kids were in bed, working on her own until 1 or 2 in the morning. At each step, Brookins would Google how to proceed, watching YouTube videos that detailed how to build a window frame, for example, or install plumbing. And since this was before smartphones (this whole thing started in 2007), Brookins had to watch the videos at home and try to remember what to do. Her greatest fear, however, wasn't that she wouldn't know what to do -- it was that her bigger kids would lose interest in the undertaking.


Courtesy Cara Brookins

"You can't force a teenager to do anything, and there was no way I could do it without them," she says. But they didn't lose interest at all -- quite the opposite, in fact.

"They had been paralyzed for so many years, they could see all these things happening around them but they couldn't take action," Brookins explains. "This was the first time they could take action to do something to change their lives ... they never rebelled, they needed this."


Courtesy Cara Brookins

The experience ended up completely transforming the entire family dynamic, she says: "We learned how to communicate, how to interact. We were playing music, we were learning to laugh at ourselves when were were stupid and making dumb mistakes."

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The Brookins family wasn't just building a house -- they were building relationships. And Brookins was rebuilding herself, in the biggest, boldest way possible. In researching how to heal and get past the horrors of domestic abuse, Brookins said she came across a lot of advice focusing on small goals, but she quickly realized that wouldn't work for her.

"I kept finding these things that would say, today, make a goal just to get out of bed or make a pot of coffee," she says. "Take baby steps and little by little it'll get better. I was like, how will I ever get anywhere if my biggest step today is make a pot of coffee? How will I ever achieve a huge goal? I decided that I was going to make that huge, impossible goal and never give up. If the first way doesn't work, I'll try another way, but my goal is never gonna change."

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Building a house by hand is definitely a "huge, impossible goal," but Brookins had an even bigger picture in mind: becoming a full-time author. And now, with the impending publication of her memoir Rise: How a House Built a Family, Brookins (who has also published middle grade fiction) is closer than ever to making her dreams come true. But the biggest prize is that her once damaged kids are now capable, confident, "fearless" individuals -- and that their family bond is stronger than ever. Now, she hopes that her story will inspire women like her to find the courage to "be their own hero" ... even when they've spent years being victimized.

"The point isn't that I did this thing," she says. "The point is you can do this thing."

That's a pretty big deal, because this "thing" -- a 3,500-square-foot, five-bedroom home with a three-car garage in Bryant, Arkansas -- is the finished product! 


Courtesy Cara Brookins

If you or someone you know has been the victim of domestic abuse, you can find help and support at DVIS.org, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, at 1-800-799-7233, or by contacting your local women's shelter (domesticshelters.org).

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