When Cara Brookins, a mother of four from Wisconsin, fled domestic violence with her children, she was determined to keep the family afloat. She mustered all her strength to build the family a brand-new home, and after nine months, it was completed.
Surprised by how successful her house turned out, Cara turned her incredible experience into a best-selling memoir which is now a Hollywood movie in the making. Here’s the awe-inspiring story of a woman who not only built a home from scratch but also put together the pieces of her family.
New Life, Big Goals
Shortly after the family’s escape in 2008, Cara decided that the family needed something to work on together, something to focus on. “My kids were 17, 15, 11 and two, and had been knocked down so many times that they needed something big as badly as I did,” Cara explained.
Cara, who grew up in rural Wisconsin; she had always loved constructing things but never found the time as an adult to pursue her hobby. “After I grew up and had four kids of my own, I should have built big things, but I was in several situations that made me feel smaller than ever, like domestic violence and being stalked by a man with a mental illness, so my goals and my future stayed small too,” she said.
She Sold All of Their Property
The family started working on the house by buying one acre of land in the north of Arkansas. To do so, they had to sell most of the property they already owned and invest it to buy around $130,000 worth of construction supplies.
But Cara didn’t have enough money left to hire construction workers, so she decided to build the house herself with the help of her four kids – Roman, Jada, Hope, and Drew. Despite their young age, they knew that if they could put their minds to it, anything was possible.
She Had Nine Months to Complete the Build
Cara had to ask for a loan to buy a few final supplies, but because she wasn’t a contractor and didn’t have any building experience, it wasn’t easy finding a company willing to give her the funds. Eventually, she agreed to finish building the house within a span of nine months or she would have to default on the loan.
The entire family pitched in and began watching numerous YouTube tutorials on how to build a house from scratch, beginning with the foundation. Laying the house’s foundation proved to be extremely difficult. They had to hike down a hill to a pond in order to collect water for the mortar which was stirred by hand in a wheelbarrow.
They Learned How to Lay Bricks and Frame Walls
Gradually, Cara and her kids worked together to build every element of their new home. With absolutely no construction experience, the family learned how to work with concrete, frame walls, and lay bricks in an organized manner.
Every kid took part in the building. The eldest of the bunch, Drew, worked on drawing the blueprint. Jada collected water from the neighbor’s pond, and Hope cooked energizing meals for everyone. Each kid also made sure to keep an eye on their two-year-old sibling, Roman, who enjoyed playing around on the construction site.
A Bit of Professional Help Was Needed
“I didn’t know yet how to frame a window or a door, how to snake pipes and wires through a wall, or how to draw up blueprints or obtain permits,” Cara wrote in her inspiring book, Rise: How a House Built a Family. “But I knew my kids, and I knew we needed this.”
In spite of their impressive, ambitious attitude, the family still needed a bit of professional help. Apart from watching numerous YouTube videos, they also sought help from workers at their local Home Depot who gave them excellent advice on how to build a house.
They Rebuilt Their Broken Family
Cara eventually hired a helping hand and paid a man who was experienced in building houses $25 an hour for his assistance. They worked for around 20 hours a day, somehow managing to juggle school and building.
“While our toes nearly froze off as we mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow, our back muscles ached from hauling two-by-fours, and we sweated and itched our way through fiberglass insulation – we also rebuilt our broken family,” Cara wrote in her book.
Inspectors Couldn’t Believe Their Eyes
In a period without smartphones, the family spent each evening watching online videos and memorizing them so they could apply what they saw on the next day. Despite the Brookin’s lack of experience, their house successfully passed every city building inspection.
Time and again, the inspectors shot the family a baffled look. They refused to believe it was the kids who were responsible for the construction. After nine months, their brand-new home was finished. And in the spring of 2009, after being granted a certificate of occupancy, they moved in.
They Named It Inkwell Manor
The Brookin’s 3,500-square-foot house is named Inkwell Manor. It has two floors, five bedrooms, a beautiful library, a three-car garage, a workshop room, and a two-story treehouse. Each kid has a room of their own.
Cara’s favorite room is the library, which she also uses as her private office when writing and discussing the upcoming film based on her novel with producers and directors. Never in a million years did she imagine living in a house like this.
A Homey and Warm Design
Their kitchen is beautifully handcrafted, and cozy, warm touches are added to every room. All over the house, one can find beautiful artwork, including framed tiles inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s Five Characters in a Comic Scene.
Inkwell Manor is dotted with many references to the Brookin family’s story, including a piece of wall art that reads: “It was never about a house.” The family feels it’s important to highlight the journey and the things they went through to build the house.
The One Special Place
There’s one part in particular that holds a special place in Cara’s heart – the heat barrier behind the woodstove. It’s made up of many different components, each one holding a special significance, like shells collected from one of the family’s strolls by the ocean, or stones found on the ground surrounding the house.
It also hides a coin for each member of the family from the year they were born. In addition, the house has a ton of places for relaxing, including cozy reading nooks, comfortable seating areas surrounded by bookshelves packed with interesting reads.
The Story Went Viral
To share the family’s story of how they built their house, Cara wrote a book titled “Rise, How a House Built a Family.” It sold for six figures to St. Martin’s Press during an auction and went viral after its release at the start of January 2017.
Today, the book has been chosen to become a motion picture, a major decision for Cara and the kids. “Turning the story of my kids and I building a house into a film… I walked away from the producers three times before I agreed. Once you sell your story you no longer own it. The use of my own name, or my kids and their names, how they are used and how they are portrayed,” Cara said in her latest YouTube video.
She Has High Hopes for the Film
Since the release of her book, Cara now tours the nation, inspiring people through motivating Ted Talks. The mother of four hopes that the upcoming film will do the same. “I decided it was worth it if we could do one thing, and that was to focus on the way that people would feel when they walked out of the theatre.
Cara wants to give the viewers the sensation that if one ordinary person could push through the challenges of life and build an entire house for their family, “then they could do whatever crazy dream they’ve been putting off.”
She Teamed Up With Hollywood Moguls
After meeting up with several different producers, Cara decided to go with Escape Artists who have worked on several successful movies including The Equalizer 2 (starring Denzel Washington) and The Upside (starring Nicole Kidman).
Above all, though, was the fact that these producers worked on a movie centered around poverty and the challenges life often poses: the movie The Pursuit of Happiness with Will Smith. “That really swayed my decision,” Cara explained.
They’ve Finally Finished the Script
As a literary writer, Cara didn’t have much experience in the field of movie production, so she teamed up with well-known Hollywood scriptwriter Kate Angelo, who helped create the TV series Will and Grace.
“There were a zillion phone calls and text messages between Kate and I and we have finally finished the script,” Cara confirmed. She also shared that she used an unpublished draft of her autobiography Rise to put together the storyline of the movie.
A Surreal Out of Body Experience
Working on the script of the movie and digging into her story has been a one-of-a-kind experience for Cara. “It’s the most surreal and out-of-body thing to replot your own life. It’s still holding the truth of the storyline but choosing which parts to highlight and which order to show them in,” she explained.
Cara is also super excited about the actress who’s going to play her in the movie. “We have an A-list, in-the-news-every-single-day major actress who’s currently attached to play me. How crazy exciting is that?” she gushed, “I can tell you who that is just as soon as the studio announces it.”
What’s Next for Cara and the Kids?
As of now, the Brookins are waiting for last minute notes to come back, and once they’ll get approvals over certain regulations, they’ll be able to move forward with the film project. Once the studio will give them the green light, they’ll be able to publish more details about the cast and release date.
While she’s waiting for the production schedule to finalize, Cara and the kids are living their best life in their incredible mansion, built by their own hands and tears and sweat, and a whole lot of determination.
School Bus Conversion
While Cara’s story is truly inspiring, she isn’t the only person to make such a bold move. Another family, the Mayes, moved from their home in Illinois to a 250-square-foot school bus which they converted into a cozy home.
Debbie and Gabriel Mayes began their bus conversion journey at the start of 2017. Along with their four kids, 10-year-old Gracen, seven-year-old Darby, six-year-old Deacon, and little baby Jovey, they set off on a journey of a lifetime.
The Perfect Way to Reconnect
“Gabriel was a little skeptical,” Debbie revealed, “but we both knew we wanted to head to California and thought it would be the perfect way to reconnect as a family.” Before kicking off their project, Debbie spent a lot of time going through different videos and tutorials.
“I made a Pinterest board with all the ideas I had and followed Expedition Happiness, another school bus conversion, on YouTube. They were the only people at the time that we knew had done it, but even then, all the buses had a center aisle floor plan… we had the idea to change that up,” she explained.
Off to a Rusty Start
Unfortunately, the Mayes’ journey was off to a rocky start. The first bus they purchased, which cost them around $5,000, was partially converted. However, it ended up being full of rust. Afterward, Debbie and Gabriel decided to buy a second bus that was in way better shape.
Even though they were living in Oklahoma at the time, they started working on the bus over 300 miles away in Texas. First, they stripped out the seats and the center aisle, which gave the family some space to work on their plan.
Turning It Into a Home
While the family members were living in Oklahoma at the time, the bus conversion began over 300 miles away in Texas. The first step was to strip out the seats and the center aisle, which gave the Mayes some space to work on their floorplan.
Once they removed the seats, the bus turned into a blank slate. Then, the next stage was to lay out the floorplan. This gave Debbie and Gabriel a glimpse into what the bus’s interior would look like and how all their storage units would fit into the small space.
An Unusual Floor Plan
The family’s bus gradually started to take shape. The sofa frames, as well as kitchen units, were fitted, and the place started looking like a respectable living area. “It is so important to us that when the kids are in bed, Gabriel and I can spend time together in the living room without waking them up,” Debbie explained.
The layout that the family decided for their bus is different from many Skoolies. Most home buses have a center aisle floorplan, allowing one to see straight through the bus all the way to the master bedroom at the end. Debbie, however, crafted an individual plan that zig-zagged through the bus to divide the space into different nooks.
They Went for Scandinavian Décor
Debbie and Gabriel, self-proclaimed minimalists (while else would they move from their mansion to a bus?) decided to go for minimal colors when it came to the bus’s interior design and décor. “We are naturally minimalists and love the Scandinavian modern style,” Debbie explained.
She added: “I’m drawn to black, white, and grey and like to have a very simple, clean style. Our bus definitely reflects that as there isn’t much color inside.” When dealing with small spaces, one should go with light and bright colors. Darker shades might give a claustrophobic feel to the space.
They Have Plans of Going Off-Grid
“I would describe the Skoolie as modern, functional, and bright,” Debbie shared. Currently, their bus is connected to the grid; however, this unconventional family has plans of making it 100% sustainable in the near future.
“We would love to get solar so that we can be off the grid,” Debbie revealed. “We are hoping to have it by next summer.” While living off-grid can be challenging, Debbie and her family aren’t afraid of stepping outside of the box.
Smart Storage Spaces
The entrance to the bus houses the living room area, which needed to be carefully designed to create the perfect space for the family of six to spend time together. Right next to the door is a shoe rack, which helps to keep the bus clean and organized.
The sofas also have hidden storage in the base, which is perfect for keeping the children’s toys out of the way. The family took the opportunity of moving into a tiny space to downsize all their possessions, so every time they get a new toy, they throw one out as a way of decluttering.
Their Bus Can Fit Eight People
The family’s new living space is dotted with small cozy touches like a brass letter holder, a homey key tray, and plushy cushions. The couches are narrower than the normal size in order to allow for wider aisle space.
All in all, a total of eight people can sleep on the bus, which is a rare achievement in the world of tiny living. The way they were able to pull it off was by attaching sofas that can double up as beds. They also installed a television set for the kids to watch when it’s raining outside.
Their Favorite Place in the Skoolie
The bus has a beautiful spacious kitchen. Its white ceilings and walls give the bus a larger feel, while the rustic wood countertops add a tinge of nature and create make the bus feel larger, and the wooden countertops add a splash of nature in the bright color palette.
The family’s favorite piece in the Skoolie is the kitchen countertop. “It was so important to me that we had a large counter space, we even chose a smaller, under-counter fridge and sacrificed that space so that we could have a large countertop,” Debbie explained.
One of the Most Difficult Problems…
One of the family’s hardest problems to solve was the dining space. At first, they believed they had found the ultimate solution by placing a flip-up table next to the kitchen. But the table proved impossible to use because they lost more space as they added more storage units into the Skoolie.
The family then tried using small center tables to build beside the sofas. But at the end of the day, the family found that they ate most of their meals outside. So, they’ve been putting off finding an indoor solution, at least for now.
Next to the kitchen, there’s the bathroom, which is packed with all of the essentials. It has a small tub, a sink, a step stool for the children, and a toilet that flushes. One of the most difficult challenges they have had to face since living in the bus is laundry.
So, at times, the bath is turned into storage for storing dirty laundry when the family’s regular laundry basket is full. There’s no doubt that this family had to get pretty creative in order to make their minimal lifestyle work.
At the back of the Skoolie are the family’s sleeping quarters. The four kids have a bunk area with a traditional center aisle in order for the bed frames to fit over the wheel wells. Initially, they were supposed to have a four-bunk corner system.
But the parents saw that there was absolutely no way to make it work. The comfy area also has some extra space to hang Debbie and Gabriel’s wardrobe. It’s a good thing that the family has utilized the space appropriately.
They Ran Into Some Unexpected Issues
This family’s journey may look like smooth sailing, but there were several problems along the way. “The first journey was a disaster. We realized that the right brake light and blinker were broken, and the toilet and hot water weren’t connected,” Debbie shared.
As it turns out, the plumbing was all off, and the roof leaked. The family patched up enough to make the drive to California, but then everything broke down and they spent three days living in a garage while fixing it all.
Advice for Other Parents
Living in such a tiny space with a family of young kids can surely be challenging. However, Debbie and Gabriel say they would strongly recommend it. “Don’t waste time worrying about what other people will think or if everything is perfectly planned; you are only one decision away from changing your life and you will feel so much freedom when you start living it the way you want,” Debbie ensured.
Building their Skoolie cost the family around $38,000, but they claim it was well worth it. “I love how connected our family has become,” Debbie gushed. “We used to find ourselves all spending time in different rooms around the house, but now the kids read to each other in their bunks, go on biking adventures, and all curl up on the couches together to watch movies. Being in such a tiny space can be stressful but we have so many more opportunities,” she added.