Every day on the bus, she passed an old school building between Henderson and Price on Farm-to-Market Road 13. She was just a third-grader at the time but could appreciate its character and appearance.
She said she particularly was drawn to its U-shape and its center courtyard.
“I saw what it could be without changing it,” she said of the building, which once served black students in the Gaston district.
The 35-year-old single mother purchased her beloved 17,000-square-foot structure decades later and now has plans to use it to get children out of the foster system. She said she and her family are slowly making it a large enough livable space to accommodate children who need a home.
“There’s no kind of life for a child who ages out of the system,” Ms. Vanliew said. “With a home that size, they would always have a mom and always have a home.”
Ms. Vanliew, who works for Gabriel Jordan GMC dealership in Kilgore, purchased the building in November 2007. She lives on the property with her four biological children — Marissa Vanliew, 8, Erin Willis, 11, Flora Willis, 15, and Gabrielle “Brie” Willis, 17— as well as two other children she took in. Austin Stephenson, 18, moved in the day before he turned 18. Ms. Vanliew said he has lived a troubled life, which resulted in him being two grades behind in school. She said he stays in a separate classroom because it is “a house full of girls.” His grandfather, Ms. Vanliew, her fiancÚ Ronnie and Stephenson were able to get him enough money for a vehicle, and he works part-time while considering getting his GED, she said.
Gabrielle “Brie” Willis said she had reservations when her mother bought the old building.
The weeds came above her head, and the structure was not visible from roadside.
There were plenty of improvements to make inside as well because the previous owner hoarded pets, trash and other items and didn’t keep up with maintenance.
“I thought she was crazy, but she’s accomplishing a lot with it, so I trust her,” Ms. Willis said.
Those accomplishments include a lot of improvements — hanging up sheet rock and hauling out trash, to fixing leaks and putting in utility lines.
In the meantime, the family is trying to continue with improvements. Ms. Vanliew hopes to have a pool in the courtyard area one day, and because the roof was un-repairable, the family decided to turn the kitchen into an indoor/outdoor garden room.
“I have a shell of a building, so we’re trying to make it into a home,” Ms. Vanliew said, adding that in the next several years, she anticipates at least three of the children to move out, leaving plenty of room for more.
She said her long-term goal is to have a forever home for “as many children as my life can handle.”
“With a place that size, you can always have a home to visit. What a lot of them lack is a parent. It’s not just a house I’m building. It’s a family …,” Ms. Vanliew said.
Her eldest daughter said she is supportive of those goals and is excited for the day when the property is finished.
“There’ll be three of us graduating within the next few years, (and) I think it makes her happy helping other people. The more she helps, the happier she is,” Ms. Willis said.
Jake Jackson, high school principal in West Rusk County Consolidated ISD, where Ms. Vanliew’s children attend, also expressed his support, describing Ms. Vanliew as a “very strong, independent woman” who is a great role model and leader for the children the has.
“With what she’s trying to do, I know she has a sincere heart to help others …,” Jackson said. “I feel like she’s going to do a lot of good for our community and our area.”