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Cara Brookins needed to make her family solid again.
The single mom of four — Hope, Drew, Jada and Roman, ages 17 to 2 at the time — had recently left a marriage where she was a victim of domestic violence, and Brookins felt like she and her kids were broken.
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“We lost ability to laugh together,” she told TODAY Home. “We had spent so long being beaten down.”
During Thanksgiving weekend of 2007, she was driving her kids to a cabin in the Ozark Mountains when she passed a house totally ravished by a tornado. Left behind were simply pieces of wood and nails.
“I stopped and got out to look at it and could see inside the walls,” she said. “I thought, ‘I bet I could put this back up if I really tried.’” And with a little help from YouTube, that's exactly what she and her family did.
That weekend, she and her children fantasized about what it would be like to build their own home. “The kids joined in and started drawing floor plans on little notepads,” she said. Next thing she knew, she was getting a construction loan to do it.
Working a full-time job, Brookins had to complete the project in nine months because of the terms of the loan. “We knew it was going to be hard,” she said. “But we had no idea of the scale.”
Since the loan only covered supplies, Brookins and her kids needed to do everything they could to cut the cost, which meant they would be doing most of it themselves. They would search YouTube tutorials to see what they needed to do.
“YouTube in 2008 was unorganized,” she said. “They were mostly amateur videos.” Because the family didn’t have smartphones back then, they couldn’t Google on the job site, so they’d have to watch it the night before. “There was a lot of ‘Do you remember how to…?’ the next day,” she said.
Brookins said the foundation was the hardest part, both physically and mentally.
“We were so weak then. We were carrying around these blocks and slugging through mud. We didn’t have proper work boots so we put plastic bags on our feet with old tennis shoes. We were completely unprepared.”
But something happened as they worked together. “We gained muscle. We gained confidence. We learned how to laugh. We learned how to communicate.” Brookins said once the foundation was done, they were able to communicate almost telepathically.
“Someone could hold their hands up and basically grunt and get the tool they wanted,” she said with a laugh.
Of course the family didn’t do everything on the site. They left the electrical and HVAC work to a licensed professional, and a friendly firefighter helped them with some of the work for $25 an hour.
The 3,500-square-foot home, which they lovingly call “Inkwell Manor,” features five bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms and a three-car garage.
“We overbuilt a lot, making sure everything was done in the most sturdy way. I was also very aware of being energy efficient,” she said. “My goal was to have a house that was very inexpensive to live in.”
Brookins said her favorite room is the library with floor-to-ceiling books. The decor style is French country, and there are lots of family-centered pieces displayed, such as items passed down from her parents and grandparents.
She added that the whole experience, however tough it was, was worth it.
“I kept hearing advice, like ‘just get out of bed, just make pot of coffee.’ If my goal is only to get out of bed, I’d never accomplish anything,” she said. Her advice to others coming out of a difficult situation? “Set goals impossibly big — look at the big picture.”
To read more about Brookins’ inspiring story, pick up her book "Rise: How a House Built a Family," out Jan. 24.