A little YouTube, a lot of motivation: Single mom, 4 kids build dream house in 9 months

And yet, 'this was never about the house,' Cara Brookins says

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

It’s one thing to build your own house.

It’s another thing to build your own massive house -- for example, one that's 3,500 square feet.

It’s almost unthinkable to build your own house that’s 3,500 square feet without any construction experience, with your four kids as your “crew” -- some were more helpful than others, as said “crew” included a 2-year-old -- with only the help of some YouTube videos you watched the night before, and a man you recently met at Home Depot.

And to have the house pass all of its inspections on the first try? That's unheard of. This sounds like the makings of a Hollywood movie, wouldn't you say? (Spoiler alert ahead!)

No, this isn’t hypothetical.

And it's not completely unheard of, because this was Cara Brookins' life, just more than 10 years ago in Little Rock, Arkansas -- although her story really only started making headlines in recent years.

In case you haven't heard about the Brookins family, grab a cup of tea and settle in.

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

The need for a fresh beginning

Here was the situation: Brookins and her children needed a house. So they decided to build one. Cara Brookins only had nine months on her loan to complete the project. So she and her kids -- ages 17, 15, 11 and 2 at the time -- didn’t sit around, brainstorming and drawing up plans for later. They just dived in.

Brookins was working full-time at her desk job early in the day -- meaning, most of the time, she wrapped up by about 3 p.m. Then, she and her children would head to the construction site. The kids were all in school. It might have been more convenient, in some ways, if it were summer break, but alas, it was not.

When asked if Brookins' co-workers thought she was crazy to tackle a project so massive, she laughed it off.

“We didn’t even tell (many people),” Brookins said. “It wasn’t something to be proud of, at the time.”

The decision to build was part emotional, part financial, she said. And it certainly wasn’t a topic she was looking to brag about.

Survival mode

Let’s rewind: It was the fall of 2007 and Brookins was finally divorced. For years, she had been the victim of domestic abuse and stalking, and her kids had been along for the ride.

The children were Brookins' motivation to get out, once and for all. The mother of four said she saw just how broken they were.

“I got panicked over the kids going out into the world (in their current state),” she said. “I was seeing my kids so uncomfortable in their own skin and house. … We were all in pretty bad shape. (In a situation like that), you just pull inside of yourself and try to survive.”

So in an effort to go from surviving to thriving, Brookins decided they’d embark on a project together. It would be something to work toward, as a team. Should they climb a mountain? Or maybe run a marathon?

But she wasn’t that into the idea of climbing a mountain. And as for the marathon, “Well, I hate running,” Brookins said with a laugh. So that was out.

She continued to mull it over.

An idea is born

In the meantime, Brookins took her children on a little getaway to a cabin up in the Ozark mountains. At one point, she remembers driving, and all the kids had fallen asleep, when she came across the remains of a house that had been destroyed by a recent tornado. And that sparked something inside of her.

“‘That actually looks pretty simple,’” Brookins recalls thinking. “‘I have nails like that in my shop. I bet I could put that wall back together.’ And then it turned into, ‘I bet I could build a whole wall.’”

And remember, it just so happened that they needed a house.

Brookins said that as a newly single parent, she could no longer handle the mortgage on their current home, so she had already come to terms with the idea that they’d be moving. She couldn’t afford much, but said she was considering a small house with bunk beds and shared rooms for the kids.

So she took a vote, and asked the children. They said they’d rather build. That worked for her: She wouldn’t have to borrow nearly as much from the bank, for a construction loan.

Here’s where the family got creative.

“From the idea to the execution, everything happened really fast,” Brookins said. “In a few weeks, we had a loan and an acre. We had nine months to build."

Getting their fingernails dirty

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

Within the first month, they were down in the mud, trying to figure out how to build in a foundation. It was December. Brookins did almost every job imaginable at the job site. She was the plumber, collecting water in a bucket from a neighbor’s pond. She and her older kids would watch grainy YouTube videos at night, researching how to build things and perform different tasks.

Again, this was 2007, so the smartphone hadn’t yet gone mainstream. So Brookins and her children would watch these YouTube tutorials on a computer, and then try to remember what they’d learned the next day at the site.

“The internet was a lot different (then),” Brookins said. “My Blackberry didn’t even have a camera.”

The family was thrifty, to say the least. For example, rather than hiring an architect, she and her then-15-year-old son Drew sat down to draw up the house plan.

How do you teach yourself how to do that? One might ask.

“You can just sit down online and see what plans other people have used,” Brookins said.

It was that simple.

At least, that's how Brookins made it sound.

'It did not feel radical'

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

As mentioned, Brookins didn’t have any experience building a home, or in construction at all.

“A bookcase was the biggest thing I’d ever made before this,” she said. “And (it was) not even one you’d be proud to show off.”

However, she was handy.

Brookins always liked tactile projects, and getting her hands involved.

“I taught myself to knit when I was 6,” she said. “I always needed to make and do things (like that).”

She had also repaired a broken sink, mixed concrete once -- just to make handprints with the kids -- and used some saws and tools previously.

“That’s what made it all feel possible,” she said. “But (the house-building) did not feel radical. It felt necessary.”

Brookins did hire a local handy firefighter for some help with the process, as well. She paid him $25 an hour and he figured things out as he went, out at the job site.

“A great part was, when I asked him to leave, he’d leave,” said Brookins, adding that it was a financial move. Some weeks, she just didn't have much "extra" to pay someone.

As the story goes, she met the man at Home Depot. He asked what she was working on, and she told him, “building a house."

Something about the project must have intrigued him, because he continued to show up.

The man, along with Brookins’ father, brought some construction experience to the table, as well. Neither had ever built a home from the ground up, but they were familiar with some aspects of what the process entailed.

Family ties

Brookins’ dad, who lives with multiple sclerosis, flew to Arkansas to help on three occasions. He definitely worked harder than he should have, Brookins said, adding that it was really nice to have another adult present, with whom to bounce ideas around.

As for Brookins’ mother, she would come down about one weekend a month, and her specialty was helping out with the food. She knew Brookins was living off of Slim Jims and granola from Costco, so she’d bring something a bit more substantial, such as a huge pot of chili and a fresh watermelon. Brookins and the kids appreciated it immensely.

And the kids? Well, they weren't exactly your average kids, to say the least.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I can’t get my kids to pick up their socks,’” Brookins said. “That was not us.”

They were motivated. And it helped that they wanted their own rooms.

“They didn’t complain,” Brookins said. “They showed up every day. There was no time off for any of us. It was all hands on deck, all day, every day. It was 100 percent a team effort. But we developed this ability to see ourselves as people who’d take on a crazy process like this. It gave us the ability to laugh at ourselves -- and laugh at one another and take it.”

It was healing.

Comedic relief: In the form of a toddler

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

There were days when the group was unbelievably exhausted, Brookins said. But the family was always up to the task of working another day.

On the hardest days, there was always someone who would take over. Someone would tell extra jokes. Or put on a mix tape -- until the group had heard the same songs just one too many times and they’d go a little crazy, Brookins said with a laugh.

“This was something that might have taken us years,” she said. “But we did it fast because we didn’t have a choice. We knew the decision would be a one-way street.

"Once you spend all the money you have to your name, you have to put together a house.”

And it was remarkable, really, considering the family's circumstances.

“People who have been beat down are sometimes on the defense,” Brookins said.

But the house really became something to bond over, and grow from the bottom up, and work on together. It opened up the family’s communication and gave everyone purpose. Even with a toddler running underfoot, the days were productive.

“Every construction site should have a 2-year-old,” Brookins said.

The set-up was a child’s dream. He could get as muddy as he wanted. He could chase crawdads and frogs, or throw rocks in the pond nearby. Usually, the 11-year-old was on toddler duty, which was just as important as any other job at the site.

“(My 2-year-old) was a bit of a reminder of why we were doing this,” Brookins said. “The older kids wanted something better for him. They could now take action, after more than a decade where they were stuck in a powerless situation.”

Brookins said her ex-husband battled "full-blown" schizophrenia. For 10 years, he’d come and do “scary, dangerous things.” He would torture the pets. He would torture the family.

“The kids had lived through this situation where there was nothing (they could) do,” Brookins said. “But now, they’d been given a task where they could get up every day and make a better life for themselves. There was so much purpose behind it.”

Fast-forward to today

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

So the family needed a house, and therefore, they built one. But this was never about the house itself.

When asked if she’d ever consider selling it, Brookins didn’t hesitate for a second.

“I wanted to sell it today,” she cracked, pausing briefly to share a funny (but not-so-funny) anecdote about a recent plumbing issue.

In all seriousness, she said, she never expected to live in the house forever. Brookins, who is from Wisconsin, didn’t even expect she’d stay in Little Rock as long as she has. She admitted she’ll stick around for at least the next few years, but said she isn't sure what the future will bring.

“Yes, it feels cool to build your own house," she said. "And to sell it would be bittersweet."

Still, it can feel like a lot of work: keeping up with the gardening on a full acre of land, maintaining a 3,500-square-foot home, and the list goes on. She won't stay forever.

Brookins has a few changes underway as of late. She has been writing computer software as her main job for the past 18 years, but she's finally hanging up her hat when it comes to that chapter in her life.

She wrote a book, published in 2017, about the story of how her house came to be, titled Rise: How a House Built a Family.

She recently gave a TED talk, and has been on the road for motivational speaking engagements.

We'll also mention that she’s authored seven fiction books (just in case you wondered how she was spending her down time -- kidding).

These days, her kids are now 27, 26, 22 and 12. Two of them live at home, including her oldest daughter, which she welcomes.

“They know they can come home at any time,” she said. “I think they think, like, ‘It’s not mom’s house. It’s our house.’ And of course it is. Of course you can come home to your room. You built it.”

So it’s safe to say, she’s not bored, or looking for ways to keep busy.

Life is certainly very different from how it looked a decade ago.

It’s surreal, Brookins said. She’ll sometimes peek outside and see someone snapping a photo of her home. Her story is out there, in large part due to her book. Or she’ll get messages from people who want to meet her, because she’s been such an inspiration in their lives.

From time to time, she will take someone up on the invitation.

Lately ...

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

Brookins is unbelievably, but understandably, so proud of her kids. Her smile is evident even in a phone conversation, when discussing all four. Brookins spoke of her children with the greatest of admiration for who they've grown up to be, calling them "fearless and bold." The older ones are all following their dreams, and even the 12-year-old wants to create his own YouTube channel, she said.

“They’ll try anything with no fear of failure,” Brookins said. “They’re not afraid. Which is so different from where they once were.”

Hollywood endings

As for how her story ended -- you know, the one where we started, about the house she built, literally from the ground up -- many might assume there was a celebration. Or a cocktail. Or at the very least, a nap and a huge sigh of relief.

Instead, the day the family started moving in, Brookins received a phone call. Her mother was being rushed to a hospital. A blood clot had formed in her lungs.

She died a short time later, at the age of 59.

“Life is a roller coaster,” Brookins said. “(With the completion of the house), you’d expect a happy moment. You’d expect that life would just let you coast for a little bit. But considering what we’d just done, (my family was) equipped to deal with it. We had built the strength and those bonds. Everyone immediately fell back into their roles. There was this intuitive understanding of what each person needed.”

But the loss was significant. When domestic violence is taking place, as was the case in Brookins’ marriage, it can be isolating.

“You don’t form friendships with outside people,” she said, adding that her mom was her best friend -- and at times, her only friend.

Brookins said she wished she had a better story to share, because she knows people want to hear something that’s happy or triumphant, after nine long and arduous months. 

“But this is real life,” she said. “We all want the Hollywood ending. And we’re still going to get the Hollywood ending, literally.”

Yes: Brookins’ story is in the process of being made into a major motion picture. She will be co-producing. Brookins couldn’t reveal too many details, but said she’s excited about the project and this next chapter.

She’s also working on a book about procrastination: how to overcome it and how to expand your life, or make your life more full. It’ll be about taking the first action, and sticking with your plan. Brookins said she’s received emails over the years from people who feel stuck, and she wants to help.

“Anyone can do (something huge),” she said. “Maybe for someone, it’s opening a business. Or climbing that mountain or running that marathon. Truly anyone can take that first step.”

Photo provided by Cara Brookins

As is pretty evident by now, she’s not exactly one to think small.

“I like to say, set goals that are (seemingly) impossible,” Brookins said. “It changes the way you see yourself. If someone had said that building a house would take five years, it would have taken five years. But nine months made me stretch further. And then it changed our perception of ourselves.

“So don’t say you’re going to write as a hobby, and it’s no big deal if you never make it. Because then you never will. Say, ‘I’m gonna write the next best-seller.’ And that’s what you’ll put into it.”

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