Wednesday, April 24, 2019

B.R.A.K.E.S. pro-active teen driving school

I now have two licensed teen drivers - Solomon (17) and Isaac (16). Let me tell you, as a parent, I have never prayed for my kids as much as since they started driving. 

We followed the same protocol with both: They get their learner's permit at 15 1/2, then spend the next 6 months being taught how to drive by me, followed by a professional driving school (that even without prior teaching fulfills the AZ learning requirements), and also administers the on the road test required to get their license around the time they turn 16. The driving school is not mandated by law in our state - the law only requires kids pass the theory test administered by the MVD and complete at least 30 hours behind the wheel with a parent instructor - but personally I feel a lot better knowing that a professional driving school is going over everything a second time with them, covering any bases I might have missed. Not to mention they get driving practice and learn how to parallel-park in a normal vehicle and not just my 12-passenger behemoth van - ha!

After they get their license, I continue to have my new drivers get as much practice as possible, making them drive every time we are riding together, with me in the passenger seat providing feedback and instruction. I also don't let them drive by themselves just because they have a license until I am fairly confident in their (obviously limited) abilities. Ideally, kids really should not get behind the wheel by themselves until they have had at least 100 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction. Time takes time. Experience and muscle memory take time, and there are no shortcuts for that. The more you can drive with your teen, the better off they will be.

Even so, with all those safeguards in place, that's still ridiculously young and inexperienced to be driving on public roads in our busy city after relatively few hours of guided instruction.

Did you know: 

- Car crashes are the #1 killer of teens ages 15-19.
- 50% of teen drivers crash in the first month of driving. 
- Teens are 400% more likely to die in a car crash than 25-34 year-old drivers.
- Half of all teens will be involved in a car crash before graduating from High School.
- 6 out of 10 teen crashes involve driver distraction. 
- Teen drivers receive the most calls from their parents. 
- Teen driver fatality risk quadruples with multiple young passengers (increases 44% with one passenger, doubles with two passengers, quadruples with three or more passengers).

A couple of years ago, I read in a magazine (Costco? Geico?) about the non-profit organization B.R.A.K.E.S. that offers free pro-active driving courses for teen drivers. Tragically, the founder lost both of his teen sons in a car accident. He turned this tragedy into a stepping stone to help other parents avoid the heartache of losing a young driver by starting BRAKES. Teens who complete BRAKES are approx. 64% less likely to get into a car crash in the first three years.

When I first learned about BRAKES, Solomon did not meet all the requirements to sign up, but I got on their email newsletter to be alerted the next time they came to the Phoenix area.

I was in the middle of frying food for dinner (stressful with little kids in the house who could get underfoot) when the email came that BRAKES was back in town. I stopped what I was doing, turned the stove off, put a big kid in charge of guarding all access to the kitchen, and immediately registered both Solomon and Isaac.

BRAKES offers four sessions on most weekends in different cities, but registration fills up quickly at most locations. Thankfully, I was able to secure a spot for both boys. 

Early one Saturday morning (check-in begins at 7:30 a.m.), I took Solomon and Isaac to the course while my husband held down the fort at home. The first half hour is spent in the classroom going over the basics of the day. The rest of the time (8:30 to noon) the kids are behind the wheel getting real-life practice. The ratio is 3 students per instructor, which is fantastic, and gives the students ample time to practice maneuvers over and over again. By comparison, when these same instructors teach law enforcement these same classes, the ratio is 9 students per instructor.

The parents had another half hour or so of classroom instruction on how to best and most efficiently teach their teen drivers. Then we, too, headed outside to do some of the same exercises the kids were doing, except not nearly as in-depth.

Even after over 20 years of driving experience, I learned a lot myself. I can only imagine how much more the boys benefited. The course covers skid avoidance, crash avoidance/slalom, distraction, panic stops, drop wheel recovery, and car control & recovery.

There were other exhibits on display that day: the Wal-Mart safety team had a semi on site for teens and parents to get into the driver seat and see first-hand how large their blind spots are. U-haul was there with a hands-on exhibit about safe towing and trailer loading (60% of weight in the front half of the trailer). The local police department had "drunk driving goggles" that the kids got to try out while trying to drive down a straight lane.

At no point of the morning was anyone bored, not even during the classroom instruction. While the kids spent most of their time behind the wheel, there were brakes for the parents. The classroom had drinks and snacks set up, all of which were free. The entire class is free. There is a $99 deposit to hold the spot for the class, but if that deposit is paid by check, the check can be picked up at the end of the class.

I do suggest that if you are at all able to, waive that deposit and let BRAKES keep it as a tax-deductible donation. This will help make it possible for them to continue offering these classes, and make them available for free to those who truly could not otherwise afford to attend. 3 out of 4 parents donate their deposit after experiencing the awesome benefits of the class first-hand (as did I). By comparison, the Bondurant driving school right here in Phoenix charges $1,225 for one-day high-performance driving instruction, and does not have the same high success rate.

More than anything, I was touched by meeting Mr. Doug Herbert, the founder who lost his two sons, in person. He is a very humble man, who truly wants to save other teens from the tragedy that forever altered his life.

Every member of his team was outstanding. Having put on many large-scale church events myself, I had a faint idea of how much planning and logistics must go into pulling off four classes with 45 students each in two days. I looked over their schedule for the day - they pretty much work without taking much of a break from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on both Saturdays and Sundays, most weekends of the year, and traveling between stops with all their cars and gear the rest of the week. It takes a special person that wants to get into a car with a cocky (or timid teenager), and teach them how to drive responsibly, how to speed toward an obstacle, pedal-to-the-metal and to swerve at the last moment. It's not something I would ever volunteer to do if it weren't for my own kids. I have even told them there are three things I never want to teach the grandkids: potty training, how to read, and how to drive. If I survive teaching those things to my own 10+ kids, I will go into retirement in those areas as grandma. Hopefully.

If you have a young driver in your family, I encourage you to take a look at the class schedule to see if one is offered in your area, and to sign up for the email to be alerted when there is one in the future. I am already looking forward to taking John and my other kids there in the future, Lord willing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What we eat and spend on food in a month - Week 1 of 4

The topic of feeding a large family can be a fascinating one. Some questions I often see asked:

- What type of foods do you make?
- How much food do you make?
- How much money does it cost?
- How much time do you spend in the kitchen?
- Do you menu plan and use grocery lists?

To answer these questions and give you a glimpse of what things look like "on average" for us, I am doing a 4-week mini-series documenting what we eat and spend over the course of one month, broken into four weekly posts.

As to the types of food we eat and the menu planning, I use my very own cookbook, Busy Family Menu Planning

Each week contains 5 breakfasts, 5 dinners, and 1 dessert. You can find out more about the cookbook here, and even sign up to get Week 1 free. 

I add to these weekly menus by incorporating one or two other breakfasts and dinners each week that are either a special meal for holidays and birthdays, a new recipe I'm trying, etc. I also add a list of "other" foods I am making each week, such as bread, kombucha, broth, etc. 

The last couple of weeks, we had done Weeks 4 and 6 from the cookbook. Due to our schedule, some meals got pushed back so I finished up the odds and ends left from those two weeks.

Here is what was on the menu this past week (Apr. 15-21):


Mon - Yogurt and granola parfaits
Tue - Breakfast Potato Skillet
Wed - Poached eggs on avocado toast, banana milk
Thu - Toast, breakfast sausages, eggs
Fri - Puff Oven Pancake with fresh berries
Sat - Chocolate Chip Orange Scones, Orange Julius
Sun - Marble Bundt Cake

(I cook double and serve the leftovers for lunch the following day)

Mon - Chicken Chili
Tue - Gyros
Wed - Sloppy Joes
Thu - Mac & Cheese
Fri - Steak Fajitas
Sat - Easter dinner (ham and the usual sides)
(we always serve it the night before b/c Sundays are too busy to cook or enjoy a large holiday meal)
Sun - Calzones


Butter Pecan ice cream
Pico de gallo
applesauce donuts
Banana boats (made by Anna)
Italian seasoning
hamburger buns

I also make a list of Weight Watchers friendly alternative breakfasts and dinners for myself, but will not include that list here as it's off topic and only applies to me.

Please note: That was what was on the menu. As it ended up, my two oldest boys ended up working late a couple of days last week and ate dinner out instead of at home, which made for extra leftovers (1 teen = 2 hungry adults), shifting some of last weeks menu items to the current week. We were also too busy on Saturday with church events to have the Easter dinner then, and pushed that back into the current week, so you will see those items again in the next post in this series. 

I try to do all of my shopping on weekday mornings, or better yet, online. I get one monthly delivery directly to my house from Azure Standard. I am a drop point for a local dairy which delivers to my house every Tuesday. I buy all of our beef from a local rancher that delivers every 4-6 months. Locally, I use Instacart to shop at Sprouts and Whole Foods. (The Instacart link will give you $10 off your first order if you are a new customer.)

That only leaves a few grocery stores I have to hit up in person: Costco (Instacart prices for Costco are higher than the store so I try to shop there in person to save money), Trader Joe's, Alpine Valley bakery outlet, and Superstition Ranch Farmers Market. Of these, I typically only go to Costco weekly, and get enough at the other stores to avoid going there but once every 2-4 weeks. 

Last week, with so many ingredients having shifted over from the previous two weeks, I already had a lot of ingredients in the house. For example, I didn't have to buy any meat last week because I already had plenty frozen on hand, as well as a large variety of produce, 6 dozen eggs, and many other staples. On the other hand, I bought extras for the Easter dinner, and ordered other foods that will last us longer than this week, such as the monthly Azure delivery.

Like I said in my previous blog post, we buy about 95% of our food organic, buying conventional only when an organic alternative is not available. This reflects in higher (though still very affordable) prices. 

Also, I am only including the cost of foods I purchased, not other things I got at the stores listed below. For instance, I bought Easter gifts for the kids and paper goods at Costco, as well as supplements, cleaning supplies, and other household goods at Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Azure. They are neither pictured nor included in the prices listed. 

I like to get to Costco 15 minutes before they open, so I can park my big van close to the store before things get crazy, and be in and out quickly. This also coincides with Peter's morning nap, so I can leave him home with my husband. I also leave the older kids home so they can do their school work, and only bring one big helper plus Stephen (6), Boaz (4) and Chloe (2). As much as possible, I try to stick to my list, and avoid any impulse purchases (a real temptation at Costco!). Having set meals and a prepared list helps me not to buy extras "just in case" I might need them or because I'm not sure if I'm low on a particular ingredient, since I know exactly what I actually need. 

Monday: Costco - total $119.82 

(3 lbs Greek yogurt, granola bars, crackers, tortilla chips, 5 lbs pears, 10 lbs tangerines, 10 lbs bananas, uncured deli chicken and ham, 4 lbs frozen cherries, 4 lbs strawberries, 1 lb blueberries, pineapple, seasoning mix, ciabatta rolls)

Monday: Whole Foods - $9.39

(1 lb uncured pepperoni. Isaac likes this for his lunches on days he's working.)

Monday (delivered): Sprouts - total $92.10 (including tip)

(granola for my husband, 4 dozen eggs, 4 Icelandic yogurts for myself, 1 gallon milk [I ran out last week and needed some for Mon night and Tue breakfast], 1 pint cream, marshmallows, 1 lb mini peanut butter chocolate cups [Anna needed these for her dessert], 1 lb tomatoes, 7 bell peppers, 1 lb kiwi, 6 lbs apples, 5 lbs potatoes, 2 lbs frozen corn, frozen pomegranate arils, garlic, 2 pints blackberries)

Tuesday (delivered): Dairy - 5 gallons milk, 2 quarts cream - $35

(The milk is normally $10/gallon, but I get the first 10 gallons each month at half-price, for $5 each, in return for being a local drop point where others can pick up their milk.)

Wednesday (delivered): Azure Standard - $186.77

(4.5 lbs mozzarella, 5 lbs corn masa, 2 lbs cream cheese, 15 lbs butter, 12 packs breakfast sausages, 5 lbs quick oats)

Wednesday: Trader Joe's - $123.37

(2 lbs corn, 1 lb salame, 3 lbs onions, 2 bottles Ranch dressing, 20 lbs Easter ham, 1 lb tomatoes, 1 box mushrooms, 10 lbs potatoes)

Friday: Sam's Club - $12.12

(3 lbs bananas, 2 lbs strawberries, 3 lbs kiwi - the kids eat a ton of fruit, so I typically buy a lot at the beginning of the week, and then add a little more fresh later in the week)

Total cost for week 1 of 4: $578.57

This is above my target budget of about $500/week, but weeks with holiday meals usually are (the hams alone were almost $100). Plus, like I said, I ended up shifting several of the meals over to the current week, including the big Easter dinner, so this weeks grocery bill will reflect that.

With that, I am feeding a total of 12 people: 2 adults (one pregnant), 3 teen boys (who each eat like two adults), and 7 kids (who eat like adults by the time they reach about age 8 or 10). So really not expensive considering I spend about $2.25 per person, per meal on average for eating mostly organic and all clean foods.

Thank you for reading, if you have come this far. Below are some pictures of the meals we had:

Chicken Chili

Poached Eggs on sourdough toast w/ avocado

 Cinnamon rolls, fruit pizza


Chocolate chip orange scones

Steak fajitas, Spanish rice, refried beans

Friday, April 5, 2019

"I can't afford to eat organic"

Regular readers of this blog might know that our family eats 95% organic. This is not driven by religious conviction, nor a case of being food snobs, but the knowledge that garbage in = garbage out, and that every dollar saved on food that is not just inferior, but toxic, translates into many more dollars spent in doctors' offices.

Oftentimes, the objection is raised that organic food is too expensive to afford, because organic ingredients cost four times as much on average as conventional. I am here to propose that most people could afford to eat all organic, if they wanted it enough to make sacrifices in other areas to afford the increased food expense. 

Now again, this is not a question of "right or wrong," so if your priorities are different than ours, more power to you! But if eating organic is a high priority to you, I am here to assure you that chances are, you could make it work, at least gradually and more and more over time. As the saying goes, "When you find a destination, you find a way." 

The three biggest ways to afford eating organic are:

- Stop eating out
- Cook from scratch
- Save in other areas

1. Stop eating out

By this, I literally mean stop eating out altogether. This is a radical idea to most Americans, where eating out is a regular staple, and drive-thru is a critical component of feeding the family. But what if I told you it doesn't have to be this way? The whole rest of the world functions just fine eating every meal at home. Growing up, it was a very rare occurrence for us to eat out. We packed a snack for school, and got out of school in time every day (1 p.m.) to have lunch at home. If we went on a trip, we packed a sack lunch or picnic. On vacation, my mom cooked. I didn't feel like I was missing out, because I wasn't. 

Obviously, any home-cooked organic meal is going to be a lot cheaper than any food purchased at any sit-down restaurant. But I am here to prove that even the cheapest drive-thru off the Dollar Menu costs more than cooking from scratch with organic ingredients (see end of this post, where I do a price breakdown).

How do you prevent eating out? Plan to be home for mealtimes, teach kids not to expect to eat between meals (no snacking), make a weekly menu so you have a plan for every meal of the day, and remind yourself of the financial and health costs of eating out.

For me, there is zero temptation to quickly drive through somewhere when our errands took longer than expected, and hungry kids are growing impatient. When you eat well at home, eating out has far less appeal, and McDonald's and the like has zero appeal. We have not eaten there (or any other junky fast food place like Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Jack in the Box, etc.) in at least a dozen years, and short of a survival situation, I have no plans to ever go there again. I wouldn't even eat there if they offered free food. It's not just expensive, but also tastes gross and is incredibly unhealthy. 

Recently, while we were displaced from our home for 4 months, we were forced to eat out far more than usual, and by the end of it all of our health was suffering. After just a month back home, we are all feeling much better again. The quality of what you eat really does make a noticeable difference. 

But what about those special occasions, when you just want to eat out to make it more special? Well, chances are, there are times when you receive gift cards for restaurants, especially if others know you prefer quality family time over more stuff and clutter. When we eat out, it is virtually always from such gift cards. You can look forward to those times as even more special when they are less frequent, and you won't feel like you are being wasteful since it was a gift. 

2. Cook from scratch

By "from scratch," I mean with as basic of ingredients as possible. That means as few boxed, canned, and jarred ingredients as possible, such as making your own spaghetti sauce instead of buying it ready, buying large blocks of cheese instead of pre-shredded and sliced, etc. 

Along with this goes shopping sales, buying in season, stocking up on bulk items when they are at their lowest price, and off-setting recipes that are more expensive with those that use cheaper ingredients. There are many posts on this blog with ideas how to save money by shopping sales, through co-ops, online such as Azure Standard, etc. Basically, you want to cut out as many middlemen as you can, each of whom adds their own profit margin. 

Resources vary greatly depending where you live. In Arizona, "99 cents only" stores always carry organic produce, some more than others. Alpine Valley Bakery sells direct to the public in a little outlet store in Mesa, where loaves of organic breads that sell for $6 at Whole Foods are anywhere from $.50 to $1.50 each. Superstition Ranch Farmers Market in the east valley has some of the lowest prices on produce in the area, including on organic items. There is a produce program operated by Borderlands Foods Bank where they sell 60 lbs of rescued produce for $12 at locations throughout the Valley, which funds are then used to operate their food banks. Sprouts has double-ad days on Wednesdays, which means both the previous as well as the upcoming week's sales are valid. Costco is the largest seller of organic foods nationwide, with prices that often rival conventional at supermarkets. On and on - to find resources in your area, you might want to join a local "crunchy" Facebook group. Each area has these resources, you just have to find them, rather than shopping over the counter for everything at a supermarket like Whole Foods. Not to knock Whole Foods, as they do have some great prices and sales in their stores, but it's the exception not the norm. 

Purchased this week at Superstition Ranch Farmer's Market in Mesa for $26.88 total - 6 x 3 lbs gold potatoes ($1.49 each), 4 x cherry tomatoes ($.99 each), 2 lbs mini peppers ($1.99 each), 8 orange bell peppers ($.79 each), bean sprouts ($1.79), Romaine hearts ($1.89)

Proper planning will prevent much frustration. If you are shopping with kids, the best time to go to the store is after breakfast on a weekday. Stores are at their emptiest, kids are fed and rested, traffic is a breeze - basically, you are setting yourself up for maximum success at minimal risk of frustration. Better yet, if you live in an area that has Instacart or a similar grocery delivery service, use it! In our area, for most stores, prices are the same as in-store. You will save time, effort, gas, and not run the risk of impulse shopping. 

Another area of planning is menu planning. Menu planning and shopping accordingly will prevent trying to figure out at 5 p.m. what to serve for dinner, only to make a run for pizza (again). Of course I am biased, but I LOVE my "Busy Family Menu Planning" cookbook I published a few months ago. I myself use those exact menus and recipes every week. It saves time, mental energy, and money. I have received nothing but rave reviews. You can now even purchase a printable version of the weekly menus and shopping lists (not the recipes), which makes it a snap to add ingredients or notes, and to pin each week's menu to the fridge for easy reference. In the back, the cookbook contains a long section of staples that can be purchased ready, or made yourself for a fraction of the cost, such as homemade bone broth. 

Finally, not buying foods that offer only "fun factor" and zero nutritional value can save a lot more money. This includes all soda, juices, and other "diabetes in a bottle" beverages (alternatives: water, unsweetened fruit and herbal teas, kombucha, etc.), unhealthy snack foods such as chips, crackers, ice cream, cookies, etc. (alternatives: no snacking, fruit, cheese sticks, yogurt, etc.), and last minute impulse-purchases to appease tantrums and bribe kids.

3. Save in other areas

Many frugal families already cut costs in all possible areas, such as not having cable TV, having an affordable home and vehicles, etc. so I won't belabor those points here. 

The only area I would like to point to, because it is directly related to the quality of food, is healthcare costs. Every penny saved by eating inferior foods will be spent (and then some) on higher doctor bills, whether that be for chronic health conditions, allergies, cancer, behavioral issues, etc. that are triggered by toxins in conventional food.

Most families, if they took the total cost of what they spend on all food (eating out included) and health care (health insurance plus bills not covered) would find they spend at least as much per capita as we do in our family. We have been members of Samaritan Ministries for years, and absolutely love it. Due to our family size and coverage level, we are in the most expensive tier, at $495 per month. Add to that about $2,500.00 per month for food, for a total of $3,000.00 per month for a family of 12, or about $250 per month per person. I am certain that factoring in all food and healthcare costs, the average family spends as much or more than we do per capita each month. 

(Side note: our dental insurance is covered through my husband's job. Checkups and cleanings are free, and while we have a copay for additional work done, we have not had to have any fillings in any of the kids in years since cutting out whole grains, so dental insurance is not an additional expense.)

While our food cost might seem astronomical to those with smaller families, even including all our healthcare spending, it works out to just under $50 per person, per week, which is slightly less than the national per capita average of $51 per week for food alone (source), and that's in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people eat conventional food and spend far more than we do on healthcare.

Consider also that back when our family size was the norm, in 1900, people on average spent 40% of their income on food, vs. just 6-10% now. The same is true for our family. The largest budget item by far is our food spending. Income-wise, considering that the "National Poverty Guidelines" for a family our size is shockingly a whopping $65,530 per year, we would definitely not be considered well off or even above average income. We save a lot of money each month by living in a modest home (about 1,600 sq ft) at rock-bottom interest thanks to impeccable credit. (Side note: We do not, nor have ever, used any government welfare programs.)

During this same time frame (1900 to today), the percentage for healthcare spending has skyrocketed, right along with rates of chronic conditions and cancer. You get what you pay for. Modern pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO foods have drastically reduced food costs, but the quality of such food is greatly diminished, and this "savings" shows up in the form of medical bills. We for one would rather spend the money on groceries than doctor bills. 

And now, just for grins, let me break down tonight's dinner, homemade Chick-Fil-A sandwiches with fresh fries.

The picture dwarfs it, but this is a 10" dinner plate with standard-size hamburger buns. In other words, A LOT of food. 

This is a pretty typical meal at our house and definitely not one of my "budget meals" because it's heavy on two expensive ingredients (chicken breast and palm oil). Also, I always make enough food for dinner one night, and lunch the next day, so the ingredients listed here will feed all 12 of us two meals, for a total of 24 servings. Every single ingredient was organic, expect for the tomatoes which were free (I had ordered organic on Instacart, they delivered conventional by mistake, and refunded the purchase price.)

6 lbs chicken breast ($5.50/lb) - $33
1 lb Einkorn flour - $3
seasonings and spices - $1
4 eggs - $.60
3 packs hamburger buns ($1.50 each) - $4.50
1 head romaine - $.63
1 lb tomatoes - free
12 lbs potatoes - $6
4 lbs palm shortening for frying - $7.24
condiments (ketchup, honey mustard) - $4

Total cost: $59.97 or $2.50 per person, per meal 

Please consider that this includes one grown man (my husband) and three teenage boys (who each eat twice as much as my husband does - literally, no joke), which more than averages out the fact that the little kids eat less. 

(If you liked this price comparison, I did another one a few years ago that you can read here, with a follow-up here.)

Now tell me, could you feed a family of 12 for $30, even at McDonald's? Who can fill their family members with $2.50 worth of items off the Dollar Menu? 

As the old saying goes, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Like I said, eating healthy is not a matter of right or wrong (unless you are grossly gluttonous), so this is more of a personal conviction. This post is intended to inspire you to find ways to make it work if eating healthy and organic is a high priority of yours. We can't imagine eating any other way. It's just too expensive not to. 

Caveat: I know there are countless families out there who already observe all tips mentioned above, and their budget is maxed out buying conventional. If that's you, please don't feel bad. You can only do what you can do with what you have been given. God can bless you with excellent health if you are good steward of the things you have been provided, no matter your circumstances. This post is intended for the average American, who spends twice as much money each month on fun drinks and snacks than they do on fresh fruits and vegetables. 

P.S. No hating on the paper plate. I can only run the dishwasher so many times per day. Dixie paper goods are what Amazon now labels "attractive modern romance." So in our house now, we eat a lot of food off the "romantic," rather than the "real" dishes. I mean, what's more romantic than not having to do dishes, right??!?

Friday, December 14, 2018

"Mothering Moments" - new weekly live series on YouTube starts today!

In the video below, I announce a new weekly series called "Mothering Moments," which I hope do live every Friday at 10 a.m. MST on my YouTube channel. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss any episodes.

Today's topic - well, you'll have to tune in to find out! 😄 I am looking forward to it, as it is something I have been wanting to address for a long time.

You can also leave topic suggestions on any of the "Mothering Moments" videos (there's only one so far...), here on my blog, or on my FB page.

I hope to see you at 10!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Update on our home

As I mentioned in a previous post, we discovered mold in one of our walls during a remodel of the kitchen in late October. In assessing the mold damage (which thankfully turned out to be contained to just that one small wall), the insurance adjuster diagnosed a major roof leak. I had not before noticed any roof leak at our house, except for once about a week before finding the mold. That was during a severe and prolonged thunderstorm, the tail end of a hurricane that had made landfall along the Pacific Coast and rained itself out over Arizona. I thought the kids had spilled some water on the counter, only to find it was dripping from the ceiling above the counter. I wrote it off as a fluke - maybe the rain had blown sideways as it often does during monsoon storms, and somehow found a way in. Being busy with redecorating the girls' room and then remodeling the kitchen, I soon forgot about it altogether until the insurance adjuster brought it back to my memory when he diagnosed a roof leak. 

Presumably, that leak had been going on for some time, though hidden from my view. Water from that leak had gotten into the kitchen wall and caused the mold, as well as caused water damage to the ceilings in the boys' and girls' bedrooms, the hallway, the hall bathroom, part of the living room, the kitchen, the office, and our second bathroom/laundry room. 

The insurance recommended a restoration contractor that could oversee everything from mold remediation, to replacing the roof, hanging drywall, etc. Within a week, the mold was remediated, which involved completely tearing out the wall between the kitchen and bathroom as well as removing most of my newly refinished kitchen cabinets (waaah!!!). Some of the cabinets were water damaged in the back, and will need to be rebuilt. 

Once the house was re-tested for mold and cleared, the company put a container in our driveway, and brought in professional movers who boxed up much of our belongings and moved them into the container, as much of the house then had the ceilings torn out in the aforementioned rooms.

Panorama pic of my kitchen and bathroom, with the wall between them removed

For the last five weeks since then, no other work has been done at the house, as no repairs can begin until the new roof is up - no point in hanging drywall only to have it rain again and have it destroyed. Contractors in our area have been swamped with work after a particularly bad monsoon season, coupled with that final hurricane. 

Last week, I was told the roofer was scheduling for January, which about gave me a heart attack. It would mean not being in our house until February or so. We had originally been told he was booking three weeks out, which would have put a roof on our house the week before Thanksgiving. With some persuasion, he agreed to try and move things around and get us on the schedule for this week. Can you imagine my joy when I turned the corner to our house a few days ago to find all necessary materials on the roof, ready to go as soon as the rain stops?? I am praying it really does happen this week.

Being away from home has had many challenges. For starters, when we left, we were told the mold remediation would take three days. Just to be safe, I booked our lodgings for five days through AirBnB, which is much easier than getting three hotel rooms with only two parents to oversee all three rooms... This was our "Tempe rental". I was able to extend it a couple of days longer as the work got delayed, but other guests were coming so we had to move. The biggest challenge at that house was that it was filled with beautiful but breakable items, and also had an unfenced pool in the backyard, which bordered a golf course (and golf balls would often land in our yard). But it was a beautiful home, and we were all sad when it was time to leave. 

I booked the second AirBnB (our Gilbert rental) for over two weeks, which took us through the week before Thanksgiving, when the roof was originally supposed to go up. I thought for sure this was long enough. Not only did that not happen, but this second house was making the kids sick. They had started coughing after the wall with the mold in our house had been opened, before we moved out (about 24 hours). The cough had almost completely gone away during the stay at the Tempe rental. Within 30 minutes of being at this second rental, Miriam and Peter broke out in hives, which developed into a persistent rash, and all kids started coughing more and more while we stayed there. 

During this second stay, we went on a trip to Southern California for three days. This trip had been planned since March. Most of my husband's family was going to be in the L.A. area on vacation, and had invited us to join them. While in the area, my husband was going to preach at our Los Angeles area church plant on Thursday night. On Friday, we were all going to Legoland, followed by a huge family gathering on Friday night. We were originally going to stay in Carlsbad the entire week (5 nights, Mon-Sat), making this vacation (which could be one of our last as a whole family before our older kids start moving on and moving out) our Christmas gift to the kids. Well, with all the unexpected expenses, we decided to still go because we had already committed to the preaching and booked the homeschool tickets for Legoland, but cut the trip short to just two nights (Thu and Fri) to save money to put toward the house repairs. We had a wonderful time with family and at church, and the kids' health again improved.

Upon returning to the Gilbert rental, within a half hour of being back, Miriam once again broke out in hives all over. This confirmed that it was not just coincidence or my imagination, but something wrong with the house. 

I am not sure what it was at this house that caused the reaction, but I think it was either 1) the cleaning supplies and detergent they used - the smell was overpowering, and Peter would get a rash on whichever side of his face he slept on. (In spite of only having one small washer, I did wash all bedding to try and get rid of the detergent. I even washed Peter's bedding twice. It helped a little, but I could not get the smell out of the mattress, washer, etc.) or 2) the Glade air "fresheners" used throughout the house. As soon as we arrived, we unplugged them all, yet the smell persisted. It was not until several days later that my husband discovered one more battery-operated diffuser high in the rafters of the living room, which had been poisoning the air at regular intervals. YUCK! or 3) A rather large patch of rotten, moldy drywall at the edge of the shower in the master bathroom. Yes, of all things, this house had MOLD! The shower door was not latching correctly, causing water to hit the wall, which had caused it to rot and mold. I don't know if any of these factors could explain the kids' symptoms, but they all got better when we went to California, and they got worse again after we returned. When the rash/hives came roaring back, I asked to break our lease early.

I had booked our third AirBnB in Scottsdale. Trying to find something that could sleep 12 people, with Thanksgiving only days away, and get us through January was no small feat, but a house popped up that was about as good as we could hope to get. We had returned from Cali late Saturday and were to move into that third house the following Thursday. After the hives returned with a vengeance upon our return from Cali, I sought to move out sooner, but could not move into the Scottsdale rental until Tuesday because they already had other guests, so we had to just make the best of it and stay at "the dungeon" until then. 

On Tuesday, we were preparing to go live at the fifth house in as many weeks (our home, the house in Cali, and three local rentals). While before I had always booked one day as overlap to make moving easier, this time we had to be out of the Gilbert rental by 11 a.m. on Tuesday, but could not move into the Scottsdale rental until 3 p.m. that day. We rented a small Uhaul trailer, loaded our belongings into it, and then ate out for lunch and killed time at the library, until it was time to move into the Scottsdale house. When we first left, we had brought very little, but weeks into this displacement we had little by little hauled over many things from our house such as bikes, clothes, books, toys, games, food, kitchen equipment, etc. so moving day was pretty busy.

It was this same day that my sweet friend Abbey flew all the way to Arizona to help us with the kids during this time. Abbey is originally for Eritrea, grew up in Germany, but now lives in the UK. She has two kids of her own, and works with kids for a living. Her and her family have been listening to the sermons from our church online for years. She is sweet, kind, patient, hard-working, upbeat, helpful, and everything else positive you can imagine, and more. After seeing my video update on YouTube, she called to ask if she could come over and help. As it turned out, the Scottsdale rental I had booked before I knew of her visit sleeps 16 people total. An entire wing of the house has its own entryway, bedroom, and bathroom. Abbey happened to arrive in town the same day we were moving, and we offered for her to stay in this wing of our Scottsdale rental, which she thankfully accepted. She stayed with us for almost three weeks. Not only was this a Godsend as far as helping with the kids and extra work, but it was a wonderful time of friendship and fellowship. Had it not been for Abbey being here and helping, I would also not have been able to finish my cookbook. We all felt like crying when Abbey left on Sunday night, and have missed her dearly every day since then. 

Which brings me to where we are right now - still at the Scottsdale rental, which I have booked through early January. Should we need to be displaced longer, we will yet again have to move, as other guests are scheduled to stay here right after our stay ends.

Peter trying to eat donuts off Anna's dress

By the time we got to move in here, the kids were all coughing badly. Just two days after moving in, I had to contact the host about a persistent smell of natural gas in the laundry room. In this house, the dryer, furnace, water heater, and stove all run on natural gas. I had noticed the smell when I first stepped into the laundry room the day we moved in, but ignored it in the hustle of moving and getting settled. The host sent out the gas company. Their technician spent some time trying to find the leak to no avail, but his equipment told him the house was using (= leaking) gas even when everything was turned off. The leak was so considerable that he said he would have to shut down the gas to the house completely, the owner would have to track down the leak which he thought was in a wall somewhere, get it repaired, and then have the home inspected by the city (!) before gas could be turned on again. I was horrified. We had just moved in. My kids were coughing and sick. There were no other homes available for a family our size to rent, with Thanksgiving just days away. Having to stay at a hotel (minimum 3 rooms) would have made everything so much harder yet. I explained to the technician how we had been displaced from our home weeks earlier on short notice, how we had just settled in here after being in a number of other rentals, and how not having gas would mean we had to move again. He took pity on me and spent several hours crawling through the attic, tracking the gas line, until he had the leak narrowed down to a part of the house that, if shut off, would only affect the dryer and water heater. He put a valve on so he could shut just that part of the house off, and we could still use the stove and furnace. It could then be turned on again by the plumber after he made the necessary repairs, and not require city inspection. This was on a Friday morning. It took until Saturday evening for the plumber that the host hired to come out and fix the leak. During this time, we had no hot water for bathing or laundry, when the kids needed lots of hot steamy showers/baths to help with their cough. The laundry also got backed up quickly during this time, as we typically go through 3-4 loads per day.

The current house has a huge yard front and back, which the kids love

Anna in particular had it very rough, having coughing fits that kept her (and me, and Peter) up all night for almost a week. Having two kids with asthma, I have experience both with knowing when a child needs to be taken in to see a doctor, as well as natural remedies for coughing. However, all my equipment (such as an oxymeter), books, and remedies were at home. The things that had not been moved into the container had been made inaccessible when everything had plastic taped over it for the demo and restoration. Entire rooms were taped off and inaccessible. One night, Anna's cough was so bothersome, that Abbey and I drove to my house in the middle of the night, "broke" through the containment areas, dug through the boxes in the container, and cut our way through plastic sheets into the rooms until I was able to get the necessary equipment and remedies to help Anna. She recovered soon thereafter. 

Then there is the issue of our cat Ninja, and Isaac's fish. It was not feasible to bring either of them with us. Ninja spends much of her time outdoors. In moving her with us, even at this more permanent rental, there is a real chance that she could get lost or hurt. Instead, we put her food and water dish outside, and have been going to our house every day to feed her and the fish, and spend some time petting her and playing with her. She sleeps on my recliner on the porch, which is soft, warm, and safe. But she must be getting lonely, and I feel bad for her.

There have been other, lesser challenges. We spent Thanksgiving in this house. Thanks to Costco selling turkey breasts and all the fixings in ready-to-bake disposable pans, we even had the typical dinner. None of the kitchens of the houses we have stayed in have been nearly as well equipped as my own kitchen. Many of the tools I am used to having are missing or broken. I am not used to only having one fridge, when just our milk alone (5 gallons per week) takes up half of a fridge. My weekly milk co-op is limping along at another location. Speaking of tiny appliances, the washers at these houses have been much smaller, and not nearly as efficient, as our near-commercial washer at home. We will celebrate at least three of the kids' birthdays while away from home. I am REALLLLLY hoping we will be back home in time for Peter's first birthday on January 15th. We will be spending Christmas here. I finally faced that reality, and set the tree up in the rental house. This being Peter's first Christmas, I did not want to miss out on the wonder of having him admire the tree, lights, ornaments, candles, and everything else this wonderful season holds. John took it upon himself to get our Christmas decorations out of the attic. It's a challenge anytime, but with most of the ceilings  (= attic floor) gone, the workers had pushed the boxes into the far edges of the attic. John had to climb along the rafters to get to the boxes, and pull them back to where he could hand them down to me. Fun fun!

Look at these awesome ornaments my friend Samantha gave to me!!

Except for the first rental, the beds in all these houses have been awful, as in: air mattress quality. Peter still nurses, including during the night, and having the mattress fold in over us when we lay chest to chest as he nurses has done a number on my back. Unlike my bed at home, there is no bed rail to keep him from rolling out of bed. I have pushed our bed into a corner, and secured the other sides with a dozen pillows on the tile floor. Thankfully he has not rolled off the bed, but being nervous is not helping me sleep better. There are the little nuisances of thermostats, light switches, and other such like not doing what they are supposed to, but seemingly operating (or not) according to their own whims. The second and third house we have stayed it have ridiculously little natural light, but plenty of dry dusty air instead. With all the blinds and doors open, it's still dark indoors. For some reason, there are not a lot of lights either, so the house is dark pretty much all the time, which is depressing. I LOVE natural light! It's one of the few things I look for in a home. One of the worst aspects for my peace of mind has been the fact that Solomon's commute to work more than doubled. Not only is he having to drive much farther, but he is now also facing rush-hour traffic, and often has to drive after dark, whereas he had been traveling in the opposite direction of traffic when leaving from home. There is not much I can do about that except pray he stays safe. He is still a young driver with only limited experience. I could go on - too many little daily annoyances to list them all. All things considered, I am blessed and fortunate to have such nice places to stay.

Miriam with two of the advent calendars she made for her siblings. She is such a blessing to everyone around her! 

In other ways, it has also been easier, as I am limited in what I can do for the family and there's nothing any of us can do about that. There is little to organize, mend, repair, or otherwise upkeep. Meals have to be kept simple because I am working with limited equipment. For better or for worse, we have been thrown into an extended ultra-minimalist lifestyle overnight. There are perks and challenges to that. When we first left our home in a hurry, on short notice, it felt like Robinson Crusoe being cast upon a deserted island, with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Then, as the days and weeks passed, much as Robinson Crusoe was able to go back to the shipwreck and salvage things here and there, we have been able to go back to our house and hamster away a little of this and a little of that, until we are slowly finding our groove again.

Anna turned 8 last week

For  now, we have settled into a new normal. The kids have fallen behind a couple of weeks on their schoolwork as a result of our lives being upended, but we are slowly making progress. They will have to work longer into their usual summer break, but the weather is much nicer this time of the year anyway and they don't mind having time off now instead.

Field trip fun

Cost-wise, we are looking at an unexpected $10k we were hit with. Most of that is for the deductible on the homeowners insurance claim and our part of the roof expense ("non-recoverable depreciation", which means the insurance only covers the cost up the actual cash value of the old roof. The difference in cost is our responsibility.). Also included in that is having to replace part of our duct work. When they tore the ceilings in the hallway out, they discovered that the main trunk of the HVAC ducts, the one that the heated/cooled air goes into when coming out of the furnace/air conditioning unit, was completely rusted through on the bottom. Which in effect means that any cooled/heated air has been blowing straight back into the attic, instead of into the smaller ducts which pipe it into the bedrooms.

The rusty part is the bottom of the duct. The hole with silver metal around it is the top of the duct, where the air comes in from the HVAC unit on the roof. You can see my air has been blowing in the top, out the hole below, and into the attic. 

The insurance most likely is not going to pay for that repair as the rust suggests long-term water damage, which is not covered. In any case, we should see our electric bills going down as the air goes where it is supposed to, as well as have cleaner indoor air and less dust by not circulating attic air.

BUT: In the sum total, the improvements to our home are worth far more than what we are paying. The roof alone costs more than that. When all is said and done, we will practically have a new house on the inside. Which is really a funny answer to prayer. God works in mysterious ways. Some time ago, we had once again toyed with the idea of moving. The advantage would be having a bigger house. The disadvantage would be having a bigger house. Ha! Also, we would have to move into the suburbs, whereas we like being close to church. We like our neighbors and our neighborhood - who knows what new neighbors would be like, or how they would react to our small army moving into their neighborhood. And while our house needed some updates and repairs, we have replaced almost everything over the years and know all the little quirks and idiosyncrasies of our house. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know." With all that in mind, we had decided to stay, but make the aforementioned improvements (bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom). Neither my husband nor myself being overly handy, and being limited on funds, I had prayed that God would either make it really clear to us if He wanted us to move instead, or to help me be completely content in our existing home, with whatever improvements we would be able to make. Now, it's like we are getting the best of both worlds - our house repaired and renovated inside and out, on our existing property, with none of the downsides of moving. Many of these improvements would have been far more challenging to do on my own, with ten kids underfoot, while we lived in the house, such as renovating both bathrooms at the same time, re-tiling, painting every room, re-running some of the plumbing to create a second washer hookup, etc. Others had been on my to-do list, such as repainting all the rooms. Now it's all being done, at the same time, by professionals. The four different rentals we have stayed in have also given me ideas for our own home, such as adding skylights above the kitchen and bathrooms, which the roofer agreed to do since he is already replacing the roof, and another branch of his company is doing the new ceiling. 

Speaking of contentment, God has taught me a few lessons during this time as well. For example, I used to think I would really much rather have a kitchen with an open layout, than the galley-style kitchen I have. Well, the first two rentals had such "open" kitchens. I quickly came to realize that kids running in one end and out the other, in laps, all day long, was actually quite aggravating. I'll gladly go back to my kitchen that is set off from the main traffic of the home, thankyouverymuch! Also, I used to think having irrigation (as opposed to sprinklers) would be really cool. It's a lot easier and cheaper to maintain. Well, this house gets irrigation. What that means is that every four weeks (every two in the summer), the city opens the canals and floods the yards with several inches of water, which takes a couple of days to absorb. What could possibly go wrong with that with kids going in and out all day?? I know now. It's like a Tough Mudder every time irrigation happens. So, no thanks on that front as well. There have been a few other things like that. In conclusion, I have always loved my home, but I have a whole new appreciation for it. Getting back into it will be a huge blessing.

The water coming in was like a little creek. All was flooded front and back by the time it was done.

The biggest blessing of all, however, has been the love and support showered on our family from near and far. I already mentioned about Abbey and her priceless help. During the worst of this ordeal, ladies from church brought us dinner each night so we would not have to eat out every meal. People in our church and other churches we are friends with collected funds to go towards the repair costs, going above and beyond in their sacrifice so they might help us. Even online listeners sent us notes of encouragement, and money to help with the expenses. It has been a blessing we did not expect, but are very thankful for, and deeply appreciate. It is both humbling and exciting to know that so many care about our family and want to help ease our burdens. It has made a huge impact financially, and greatly reduced our unexpected expenses due to this fiasco, helping turn it into a blessing is disguise. So THANK YOU to everyone who has prayed for us, sent cards, brought meals, given gifts, or otherwise supported us during this time. Please continue to pray that 1) the roof will be replaced within days, so inside repairs can begin; 2) that all work will be completed in time for us to not have to move again 3) for the insurance to cover the cost of new ducts 4) for Solomon do stay safe on his long daily commute; 5) for none of the kids to get sick again.

If you have read this far, you are a trooper! Thank you! I tried to make an update video instead, but could't make it sound coherent. Thank you for thinking of us, and praying for us. I hope you are able to enjoy this wonderful season with your loved ones. 

Cute pictures of my babies

My husband and Isaac were gone on a missions trip to Guyana all of last week. Peter absolutely ADORES his Daddy. He is the preferred parent, hands down (unless he's tired or hungry, then I temporarily become the favorite).

When they got back home early Sunday morning, Peter's ears perked up as he heard his dad approaching even before he could see him. He practically lunged out of my arms when Daddy came into sight. All day Sunday, he just kept leaning in for hugs from Dad. It was very precious.

After church, we all went out to Red Robin on a gift card we got for Christmas. 

Yesterday at Costco, this is what my cart looked like. That's Stephen and Boaz riding along on the bottom of the cart. It's been their latest, greatest way to have fun. I don't like it because they drag their hands along the dirty floor (YUCK!), not to mention there's the danger of sticking their finger into the wheels, but I let them do it just for a few minutes until the bottom of the cart got filled with bottled water and paper products instead. We go through a lot of both each week. 

Chloe loves her baby brother, and is an awesome big sister. She is always looking out for him. Peter understand this, and loves her in return. It is very sweet to watch the two together. 

I am hoping to publish a post later today or tomorrow with an update on our house situation, so please check back soon.