ZILLAH — Maggie and Eugene Dawson, recently named Central Washington’s 2020 Angels in Adoption, were on the hunt for a certificate that detailed the honor earlier this month.

“I thought it was on top of the refrigerator somewhere,” Eugene said. “Check in that cabinet.”

It was just another day in this home of nine, where papers, toys and other possessions get carried along by the current of daily life. As Eugene and Maggie hunted for the paper, activity swirled around them.

Delilah Dawson and Valeria Alejandre, 3- and 4-year-old cousins who look and act and dress like twins, chased each other, squealing and laughing. Eighteen-year-old America Alejandre, one of three teens learning remotely, briefly joined the search. Another cousin staying with them, 11-year-old Fidel Alejandre Jr., watched a video.

Eugene, on a day off from his job as a nuclear security officer at the Columbia Generating Station on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, enjoyed the cheerful flurry of activity.

“It’s somewhere here,” he said, grinning.

The Dawsons sincerely appreciate the honor they received from U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse on Oct. 29. Newhouse nominated them for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Angels in Adoption program, which honors families, individuals and organizations making extraordinary contributions to adoption, permanency and welfare. Members of Congress choose an individual or entity from their district who has made an extraordinary contribution to children in need of homes.

The couple did not want them separated and got legal custody of the seven youngest Alejandre children in September 2017. The honor praises them for creating a safe place and secure family unit for the children, five of whom are still living with them.

“Maggie and Eugene knew their nieces and nephews would need a loving family after this unimaginable tragedy,” Newhouse said in a news release. “They stepped up, surrounded by support from their community, to provide a home and help the children heal from their trauma.”

While the document they received from Newhouse is impressive, what matters is the family’s love and support for each other, more important than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“Everybody’s healthy,” Maggie said.

Busy days

The day they received the honor, Eugene got off work that morning, drove home and took a nap. He puts in at least 48 hours a week at the Hanford site. Later, everyone went to El Porton, where 16-year-old Jaime Alejandre works, for a small recognition dinner.

They posed outside the restaurant with Newhouse for a photo, the Dawsons, Polo and Delilah and the five Alejandre children still with them — America, Jaime and Valeria, plus 13-year-old Esperanza and 8-year-old Victoria. All wore face coverings as they stood near a sign encouraging social distancing.

It was an enjoyable gathering for this busy family. School work is the children’s main focus these days. Esperanza has straight A’s, Maggie noted. Esperanza is one of three “Zoomers” in the Dawson house; the teens are learning remotely because of the pandemic while Victoria joins Polo in walking five days a week to the bus stop about a block away. They’re glad to be back in person afternoons at Zillah Middle School.

Having students on laptops for several hours a day has required some adjustments. The three teens are upstairs while learning remotely, so they can stay focused away from all the downstairs activity. Maggie keeps a close eye on the ever-energetic Valeria to limit interruptions.

“If I am not watching where she’s at, she goes up and checks on her siblings,” Maggie said.

America works at Grinders Espresso, a popular coffee shop near El Porton. She is attending Zillah High School and YV-Tech and is set to graduate next spring, with an eye on college and a career as a physical therapist. Heritage University is a possibility, she said.

Jaime also attends Zillah High and YV-Tech and fits wrestling into his school and work schedule. Wrestling is a popular sport in this family, and one Eugene encourages. He wants all the children, including the girls, to be fit, strong and able to defend themselves. He converted the two-car garage into a workout area and leads small gatherings of wrestlers in flipping tires, running and pulling sleds up the hill leading to their cul-de-sac.

The Alejandre children FaceTime with their older siblings and the family gathers every Sunday for online services of Resurrection Catholic Church in Zillah.

Maggie and Eugene are proud of the children and do what they can to ensure bright futures. “We want all the kids to be successful so they can lean on each other as well as us,” he said.

House expansion continuesSpace tightened considerably in the Dawsons’ three-bedroom home when their nieces and nephews came to live with them. A little more than a year ago, Selah contractor Carlos Lopez, owner of Apple Valley Home Builders, began working on an addition designed by Yakima architect Ron Pelson, an owner of Traditional Designs Inc.

Both felt strongly about helping make more room for the family and donated their time. Lopez and some of his employees poured a foundation. The lower level of the addition, a daylight basement, will include two bedrooms and one full bath. The upper level will feature a great room attached to the house.

Work stopped after the novel coronavirus spread into the Yakima Valley, and the Dawsons didn’t want to press Lopez. They are thankful for the work of Lopez and his employees and guidance from good friend Isabel Garcia.

“Our contractor, he’s been through a lot. We didn’t want to bother him too much,” Eugene said.

With that in mind, the couple recently signed a letter of intent with Yakima Valley Partners Habitat for Humanity to complete the addition. The nonprofit’s board of directors agreed to take on the work as a community project, which will involve the Perry Technical Institute, Traditional Designs and possibly other community organizations.

The family must complete a minimum of 250 “sweat equity” hours with Habitat, with at least 100 of those hours at the construction site. Relatives, friends, co-workers and church members can work some of those hours as well. Partnering with Habitat for Humanity also means any donations toward the project are tax deductible.

Habitat officials had planned to start ordering materials last week, said Meloney Rosen, executive director.

“Our construction manager has already been out and assessed the plans that are in place currently and what’s been done by the previous groups of people,” Rosen said. “He’s worked with the inspectors and we’re literally ready to move forward.”

Though the timeline isn’t firm because of the pandemic and rising cases of COVID-19, “Our estimation is we should be done with the project in six months, but that is a very rough estimation based on current conditions,” Rosen said.

“It’s hard to say. We just don’t know what COVID holds,” she added.

The project doesn’t fit the traditional model for the local Habitat organization, Rosen said. And while Habitat International completes home repairs, “no one does additions,” she said.

“It’s just a different model. Habitat International likes us to keep our homes under 1,400 square feet; the addition is almost that,” Rosen said.

“We agreed it would be a community project, not a traditional Habitat build, and render expertise and our skills so we could help this family,” she added. “They’re an amazing family and they’ve done a lot under some very difficult circumstances.”

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