Despite the close quarters, little touches of home abound.
A small chalkboard in the entryway bears the message “Dad loves You!!” in pink and yellow chalk with a heart.
Above the dining room table hang pictures drawn and painted by children including one with a motorcycle and the other with hearts and the words “Love” and “Kiss me.”
Other signs serve as reminders of how to cultivate a positive household such as “Use kind words,” “Meet Me Halfway,” and “Just be together,” remnants of the parenting classes Christopher Skelton took in the past.
On the refrigerator are family pictures drawn by his children, ages 8, 10 and 11. Skelton also has his framed certificate of graduation from the 321st Family Court hanging on the wall, and nearby is the Most Outstanding Effort award from the drug court. It is a trophy with a man riding a bicycle on top of it, created and named for Skelton, and it serves as a reminder of the journey he took to get his kids back.
“Yes, it was 5,000 miles. It was over 5,000 miles. But it’s not about the miles. It’s about the mission," Skelton, 38, said of how far he rode his bike in 2014 and 2015 because it was his mode of transportation.
And he wasn’t alone in that mission.
“People went out of their way for me if for no other reason that they knew that I would go out of my way for them, that I would go out of my way for my kids,” he said. “It wasn’t just for the court; I didn’t do this for the courthouse. I started doing this because I couldn’t imagine telling my kids that they weren’t worth everything that I had to give.”
A ROUGH ROAD
There were plenty of hurdles Skelton had to overcome in his fight for fatherhood — addiction, transportation and housing issues to name a few.
But with the helping hands so many offered Skelton along the journey, he now has a car, a home and his three kids.
The path didn’t always look so clear or promising.
When Skelton learned that Child Protective Services was giving him the chance to gain custody of his children, who were removed from their mother’s care, he seized the opportunity, though at times he wasn’t sure if he could do it or should do it.
“I don’t know if I’m what’s best for my kids,” he once told his CPS supervisor. “Look at me, I can hardly take care of myself.”
In 2013, Skelton was serving time for an assault family violence charge because of an incident with his ex-girlfriend’s father. Prior to his incarceration, their children had been placed in the care of a family friend, an arrangement that was supposed to be permanent.
When he was released from prison, Skelton fell back into a substance abuse life. He then received a call from Kevin Park, a Child Protective Services supervisor. That call was one of the early conversations Skelton would have with people who gave him a chance.
Park explained a problem arose with the friend with whom his children had been placed, and the children were removed from that home. That effectively started the case over and with Skelton out of prison, CPS gave the family a second chance.
The first step toward getting his children back was addressing his addiction.
Because Skelton had failed a CPS-ordered drug test, he was placed in the drug court system. Though he was livid about the drug test at first, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“If it hadn’t been for that, I never would have been able to get into the drug court program,” he said.
That program and the people in it were part of what helped him to change his life.
Four weeks into a substance abuse recovery program, he was up for his one-month sobriety chip at his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Skelton, though, knew he wasn’t sober. He knew there were people in the program taking it seriously, and he wasn’t. He couldn’t take the chip, but he also was afraid to tell the truth until a fellow AA member shared about their own relapse.
Boosted by that person’s courage, Skelton came clean.
“Look,” he said to the group, “I’m not clean and sober for a month. My last drink was three days ago.”
What happened next deeply affected him. A fellow AA member who was there from out of state gave him her desire chip and said, “You know, this is my personal chip. I’ve had it on me for years and it’s dry when I give it to you and I hope that this is your last one.”
The desire chip is the first chip an AA member receives to encourage them to pursue their desire to stay sober for the first 24 hours. It has the serenity prayer on the back.
“I’m two and half years in and it’s still dry and I still keep it on me,” Skelton said. “Something happened to me that night. ... A new and genuine desire came over me to really give it my all.”
It was then that things started coming together for Skelton. A friend gave him a pink mountain bicycle. That bicycle and three subsequent replacement bikes were Skelton’s means of transportation for 2014 and early 2015. He rode a bicycle to work, to drug court hearings, to parenting classes, to the CPS office, everywhere.
One day while passing Designer Graphics on Frankston Highway, something inside him told him to go inside. He stopped and put in an application. Rex Hutto, the company’s screen print manager, interviewed him on the spot. Skelton shared his story and told Hutto everything.
“I was like, ‘I’m gonna be late every Thursday, every Thursday,’” he recalled. “‘And on any day they should happen to call my color, I’ll have to go and drug test. ... I’m on parole, you know. I got a lot going against me right now.’”
Hutto listened, but wasn’t deterred. In recalling that day, Hutto said he knew what it was to struggle in life and he knew what it took to overcome that struggle. He wanted to give Skelton a chance.
“You can’t make somebody work,” Hutto said. “They have to have the will and the want to.”
And Skelton did, so Hutto hired him.
“He didn’t let me down,” Hutto said. “He’s always willing to do whatever. I think he’s worked hard and deserves everything he gets.”
Skelton worked hard on his personal challenges as well. He attended drug court every week for eight to nine months before he was allowed to attend every other week and then finally once a month.
He also got to have supervised visits with his children every week for two hours. In the beginning the visits were at the CPS office. Months later he was able to take the children to Bergfeld Park when the weather was nice or Jack In The Box when it wasn’t, but a CPS representative was always there.
During this time he talked with Park, the CPS caseworker, almost daily. There were times Skelton was unhappy with Park, but to this day he calls him one of his best friends.
“In my opinion, if you want to work in the best interest of the child, you’re going to work with the parent,” Park said.
For Park, that meant talking regularly with Skelton, giving him rides periodically, especially before he had the bicycle, when weather was bad or when time required a faster mode of transportation than a bicycle.
Even though Skelton was progressing, Park wanted to make sure he was fully ready before they gave him custody of the children.
There were times Skelton told Park he was ready to have the kids and Park said, “No, we’re not there yet. I want to make sure we don’t have another case.”
“I think I wanted to let Christopher focus on Christopher,” Park said. “I didn’t necessarily think that he was not prepared to take care of the children, but I was not willing to bet his family’s future on it when we didn’t have to.”
So, they didn’t. One of their sayings was, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
“We had a lot of very frank conversations,” Park said. “We had a lot of trust that had to be built and I don’t think that there’s any way we would have gotten to that point if we hadn’t spent the time with each other.”
As Skelton walked on and continued to meet all of his responsibilities, people continued to extend a helping hand to him in the process.
One of the unexpected gifts was a car given to him by Arline Corey, who oversees quality control at Designer Graphics.
Ms. Corey had recently purchased a new car for herself and didn’t need the 1999 Toyota Camry she used to drive.
“I knew that he was not going to be able to transport his children with his bicycle,” Ms. Corey said. “He needed it more than I did.”
So, one day they went down to the title company and he paid the taxes and the cost of the title transfer on it.
“I see the struggles he’s going through,” said Ms. Corey, who also had CPS involved with her child at one point in time. “Everybody needs a hand sometimes.”
That gift was one of the last puzzle pieces to fall into place before Skelton was granted custody of his children. In April 2015, his sons, Avrey, 11, and Kaleb, 10, came to live with him. In June 2015, his daughter, Allyson, 8, joined them.
He received the boys first so that he could ease into the parenting process slowly and learn how to manage two children before getting all three.
FINDING A HOME
Although Skelton was overjoyed to get his children back, the daily reality was challenging, particularly because of their housing situation.
The family of four lived in a small two-bedroom, one-bathroom, about 600-square-foot apartment that lacked a washer and dryer, meaning weekly trips to the laundromat.
Large gaps in the back door’s frame were filled with clothing to help insulate the home. But it didn’t prevent the cold air from coming in during the winter. In the summer they used two window units for air conditioning, one in the front window and one in the back.
The boys slept on a bunk bed in the back bedroom, which also served as a makeshift closet and storage area for Skelton. Allyson slept in the middle room and Skelton slept on a small couch in the living room/dining room. The kitchen was on the other side of a partial interior wall.
“It brought us closer together,” Skelton said of the arrangement. “Really, we had to learn to share our space.”
With a desire to own his own home one day, Skelton started saving money.
When a friend told him about Habitat for Humanity, he filled out an application. Although he met the requirements (just barely), he received a letter from Habitat for Humanity of Smith County indicating they were unable to partner with him at the time.
But then he got a call from Habitat’s director of operations and finance, who told him the nonprofit had acquired an existing home, upgraded it with new carpet, a paint job and more and was ready to sell it to Skelton if he could take care of one debt he still owed.
With the help of a gracious banker who cut the debt in half and a generous boss who loaned him the money to pay it off, Skelton did.
He was approved a few months later for a loan on the house. During his visit to the property with his children, he had them all sit down in a circle in the master bedroom and told them this would, in fact, be their house.
“Everybody jumped up and down, even me, I did too, I did too,” Skelton said with a smile. “We all grabbed hands and jumped up and down and (ran) in circles and I said it out loud, must have (been) like seven times. I said, ‘This will be our house. This will be our house. This will be our house. This will be our house. We’re gonna live here.’”
“I want to say it was hard to hold back my tears, but I didn’t,” he said. “It was truly emotional and absolutely awesome.”
The difference between the new house and the old is dramatic. Each child has his or her own room with a closet and Skelton has the master bedroom. There are two full bathrooms, one in the hallway for the children to share and one in the master bedroom. It’s equipped with washer/dryer hookups and has a large, fenced backyard where the children can play.
This is Skelton’s new reality, and it’s a far cry from his life three years ago. He is a man of routine and organization.
He and his children wake up at 5:40 a.m. daily, eat breakfast and get dressed. During the summer, they are out the door by 6:30 a.m. so he can drop them off at day care. During the school year, he waits for the school buses to pick them up before leaving the house by 7 a.m.
He puts in a full shift at work from 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. before picking up the children from day care. Once at home, he makes dinner, which they typically eat by 6 p.m. After that, during the school year, it’s time for homework, showers and bed. The family is in bed by 9 p.m. at the latest.
During weekends at home, the family still sticks to a pretty strict routine, waking up early and eating three meals a day at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Sometimes, though, they spend the weekends with their grandparents. Their mother also can have supervised visits with them.
On the day the family moved into the new house, Skelton drove up to the house after picking up the kids from day care and they were all smiles as they got out of the car. The kids already had picked out their rooms the first time they saw the house before they even knew it was going to be home. So Skelton had moved their beds and other belongings into the rooms they picked out.
“Hey guys, check this out,” Skelton told the boys as he walked into the kitchen and pointed out the gas stove. “It’s my favorite thing. Doesn’t this look real cool?”
“Where’s goldfishy?” one of the kids asked, referring to the family pet.
Skelton said he hadn’t brought the fish over yet. The kids oohed and aahed about the washer and dryer and the size of the living room.
Even though not everything was moved yet, Skelton brought at least one item that was special for each child - the bean bag chair for Kaleb, the small couch for Avrey and a decorated dresser and chest for Allyson.
After the kids finished looking around, everyone sat on the large sectional sofa in the living room - their mother had given it to Skelton for the house - and the kids shared a bit about what they like about their dad.
“That he’s so nice,” Allyson said.
“That he never stops trying for us,” Avrey said.
Kaleb remained silent, unsure what to say, before Skelton piped in a suggestion and Kaleb agreed.
His dad lets him play video games, he said.
Yes, this life is a change from where Skelton used to be, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It was a hard fought battle and it was worth every tooth and nail lost,” he said. “It’s worth it. It’s worth it every day.”
Staff photographer Sarah Miller contributed to this report.