WASILLA -- Melissa McGraw, 20, doesn't let many people see the old fifth-wheel camper trailer where she lives with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. She doesn't want to be judged.
She is finishing her high school degree at Burchell, an alternative school in Wasilla. For years she kept the details of her housing situation secret. She didn't tell her teachers that she had no plumbing or running water. Or that electricity came from an extension cord. She didn't tell them that rain leaked through the roof and cold snaked through the windows even though they were covered with insulation.
She didn't expect them to understand why she and her husband lived there. It wasn't ideal, but it was theirs. They relied on each other to build it. They've been mostly on their own since they were teenagers.
Then one day last month McGraw's secret spilled out.
The plan had been to fix the roof before winter. She wanted to use their Permanent Fund checks, but there was a problem with the applications. She broke down about it in front of Burchell principal Adam Mokelke. He called the PFD office and helped her solve the problem. He asked her to bring him a picture of where she lived. Maybe he could find someone to help fix her roof, he said. Cautiously, she agreed.
She brought the photo the next day. It showed a plywood box covered with roofing material and tarps, connecting two aging trailers. It didn't look like a great place for anyone to live.
All Mokelke could think about was Brooklyn, McGraw's bright, round-eyed daughter, who attends child care and preschool at Burchell while her mother is in class. Both mother and daughter have health problems.
"I thought, 'There's got to be something we can do to make this better,' " he said.
'NOWHERE TO GO'
McGraw's story isn't unique. Advocates estimate there are hundreds of homeless teens living in the Valley. The Mat-Su has no homeless shelters for teenagers or adults like those in Anchorage. At Burchell, about half the student body, around 100 students, are living without stable housing. Most don't have parents in the picture. Some couch surf or sleep in tents. Some camp out in cars in the Wal-Mart parking lot, running the heater to keep warm. Some live like McGraw, off-the-grid in cabins on the fringes of Wasilla. "Third World conditions," Mokelke calls it.
"It's a huge problem," he said. "Our kids have nowhere to go."
Cold, rain, and mold drive them from one place to another. It makes it hard to focus on school. The recent flooding led several students to drop out, he said.
Mokelke has no shortage of students with hard lives, but McGraw's picture haunted him.
"There are a lot of Melissas at our school," he said. "But she's got her 3-year-old; that adds another layer."
Poverty in the Valley is a cycle just like it is everywhere else, he said. If you're raised in substandard housing, you get used to it. Family dysfunction, substance abuse, a general lack of resources and education, all of that gets passed down from one generation to another. His job is to teach his students to resist all that. He tells them education is their ticket out. McGraw is doing everything she can to better herself, he said. He hated to see her 3-year-old start out with so much to overcome.
"If we can just get them on their feet, get Melissa graduated and get her diploma," he said, "they would break that cycle."
Mokelke went home and told McGraw's story to his wife, Crystal. They decided to organize to fix the trailer. Then the parents of her husband, Jesse Troyer, agreed to let them build on their land. The effort expanded. They would build a cabin. Crystal worked with MYHouse, a Valley nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless teenagers, to start a fundraising page online. Small donations trickled in. Spenard Builders Supply offered them a discount. Country Legends 100.9 FM, Wasilla's country station, solicited supply donations. Mokelke and volunteers put down a 20-by-20 foundation and floor. Donations kept coming.
'IT'S OUR HOME'
I met McGraw with photographer Marc Lester in a classroom at Burchell after school two weeks ago. She is a tall, slim, serious girl with green eyes and a ponytail. She carried Brooklyn, who wore a huge pink bow in her hair. I asked how she ended up in the fifth wheel. It was kind of a long story, she said. She couldn't remember much about what it was like to live in a house.
"I can't even tell you how many times I've moved in my life," she said.
McGraw was grateful for the help with the cabin, but at the same time it wasn't easy to accept.
"I don't want anybody getting the wrong impression, especially of my family," she said.
They loved her, she said, they just didn't have a lot of money.
She was 15 when she became an unaccompanied minor, she said. She had been living with her mother and a half sister in a hotel room. Her mom worked to support her, but she didn't like to stay in one place, McGraw said. Her dad had his own problems in another state. Maybe she was being rebellious at the time, but she wanted to stop moving. That meant going out on her own.
She ended up with Troyer, who was then her boyfriend and a student at Burchell, camped out in a broken-down van. Heat came from a candle. At 16, she got pregnant. For a while she and Troyer shared a single mattress in an alcove at his parents' crowded house, next to a couple of cat boxes. Then they moved into a leaky, moldy shed. It doesn't sound good when you describe it, she said, but at the time she was happy to have it. She felt Brooklyn kick for the first time when she lived there.
After she gave birth, McGraw stayed on and off with friends and her mother. They caught a break: an old fifth-wheel trailer near his parents' place in Houston. They've worked for two years to make it as livable as they can. Last summer, they got married.
Lester and I asked if she would take us to her place. She thought about it before she agreed.
"It's our home, we shouldn't be embarrassed by it, but it is embarrassing," she said. "We just don't like to ask for anything."
SMOKE AND DUST
We followed McGraw in her minivan up the Parks Highway, passing the Big Lake turnoff and the fireworks stands that mark Houston city limits. The day was cold and clear, with frost on the grass along the highway. We turned off. The road narrowed. We passed old trailers covered with fraying tarps and half-built cabins in the naked trees. McGraw's place sat at the end of a dirt road.
We parked near a plywood structure, and McGraw led us inside. Troyer had work now as a gutter installer, she told us. He's graduated from Burchell. (He didn't want to meet with us for this column.) With the money they could scrape together, they'd torn out the inside of the fifth wheel and covered the windows and walls with insulation. They attached a small camper to make a kitchen. Then they built a living area out of plywood.
Inside, Brooklyn's artwork hung on the rough walls. There was a wood stove, a television and a couch. Brooklyn ran by me into the half-sized part of the fifth wheel that usually serves as a sleeping area. Her parents had painted the walls pink and rolled out a scrap of carpet. She showed me her toddler bed with a canopy. She pulled out a favorite toy, a pillow shaped like a bee.
The air inside felt heavy with wood smoke and dust. McGraw and Brooklyn have near-constant bronchitis. McGraw had surgery for a heart condition last year, and has crippling back problems caused by scoliosis. Brooklyn uses a nebulizer for asthma. McGraw tries not to think about what might happen if the trailer were to catch fire, she said. With the windows covered with insulation, there is only one way out. You'd have to pass the wood stove to get to it.
McGraw has five credits left to get her diploma. After that, she'd like to teach preschool or do something with languages, she said. The new cabin won't have water or electricity at first, but it will have plumbing and wires. Eventually there will be lights and water. Some day, she'll be able to give Brooklyn a bath there and wash their clothes.
She's looking forward to feeling safer, and to being warmer, she said. Volunteers have put up walls on the cabin. There are windows and doors. They have just enough money left to get a roof on before the snow flies.
McGraw showed us a drawing she'd made of the interior on graph paper. She knows where she'll put every piece of furniture. She's imagined every inch of every room. Maybe in the new place, she said, they won't get sick as much.
"I don't know what my life is going to be like because I'm going through a lot of things right now," she said. "I'm just hoping to give Brook everything I can."