Tiffany Hicks-Bey has a Christmas tradition. It’s called a “gift from the heart.” In her family, everybody gives one. And everybody receives one. Here’s what it’s not: store-bought, last minute or general.
The gifts are made with the recipient in mind and generally come with a note. Last year Tiffany’s daughter gave her a collage made from pieces of bark from different kinds of trees.
“She said a tree was life and I touched peoples’ lives,” Tiffany, who works as a pediatric nurse, said. “It made me cry because I didn’t know she saw me that way.”
But sentiment isn’t the only holiday hallmark. The family, which includes Tiffany, and her two daughters, two sons, brother and mother, does gag gifts, too.
“Those gifts usually look the best wrapped in bog boxes … they look appealing,” she laughed. “But they may have nothing inside … or, when it comes down to it, there could be a rock in there.”
This year the family is in a new home in Brunswick County, and Tiffany will host 22 people for Thanksgiving. There will be space for everyone to “do their thing,” she said. Her 9-year-old daughter will bake and cousins will help with everything from the macaroni and cheese to the greens. People will eat in the dining room, kitchen and family room.
Tiffany is quick to point out that she’s looking forward to the ease that a dishwasher, kitchen island and large sink will bring to Thanksgiving day. And her new garbage disposal? Well, she talks about that the same way some people may discuss the famous Hope Diamond.
Her joy and excitement is a reflection of the path she traveled to get to the new house, which was practically empty during the first few months she lived in it.
The Road to the home
Before purchasing the new home, Tiffany lived in a three-bedroom rental house with her two sons (ages 20 and 22), and two daughters (ages 12 and 9). It was comfortable, she said, but began to feel crowded in 2015 when she welcomed her mother, who lived in a shelter, and brother into her home.
Tiffany didn’t think twice about welcoming her family into her home during a time when they needed help.
“If I have something, I am going to share it no matter what,” she said. “That might mean there is less for me, but if it makes your life a little more comfortable, I am willing to do it.”
For two years, Tiffany searched for a larger place and saved each month for a down payment. She found something that would accommodate the needs of her large family, but she still needed help with the down payment.
She reached out to local churches. Some days she made as many as 25 phone calls looking for assistance. Catholic Charities was one of the last agencies she called. For Tiffany, things began to look up when Patricia Gutierrez Tootoo, a Catholic Charities case manager in the Cape Fear Deanery Office, returned her call.
“Catholic Charities was the only agency to call me back,” Tiffany said. “I was at my lowest. She lit the fire back again to keep me going.”
Tiffany and Patricia worked together. “Tiffany was very determined. She was very organized. Her whole story inspired me,” Patricia said. Once Tiffany saved enough money, Catholic Charities provided the final piece of financial assistance to help her complete the down payment and become a homeowner.
One last obstacle before the move
But, for Tiffany, the challenges weren’t over. She faced one last trial before moving into her new home. Her rental home was sold and she needed to move out July 31. Originally, her closing date had been Aug. 1. However, her closing was delayed multiple times, which left Tiffany and her family homeless for 23 days.
Her family had to scatter for that time. Her mother, brother, and two sons went to live with her sister in Washington, D.C. Her daughters went with her cousin in Fayetteville. Tiffany remained in Brunswick County to continue to work. Many nights she slept in her car in a parking lot. “Occasionally I would stay with friends, but there are only so many days you can do that,” she said.
Tiffany was happy to close on the house and get her family back together, even though they were moving into a house with no furniture because she sold much of it to afford the house.
“We had been apart for 23 days. It felt like forever. I missed everybody with their craziness,” she said when they moved in to the house. “Even if we are moving in and sleeping on air mattresses. I can’t wait to sleep on air mattresses with them.”
Now that they have lived in their home for a few months, those air mattresses are packed away and everyone has a bed. Tiffany hopes to further her nursing degree. Her daughters do their homework at the kitchen island, and play soccer across the street at a park.
“We had the house blessed. We decided to give it back to God because he was the one that gave it to me in the first place,” she said. “We are grateful for how he made it. It could have been so hard that it was impossible.”
-Kate Turgeon Watson
Daniel Altenau contributed to this report