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New nonprofit helps at-need children rest easy

September 9, 2018

After a long day of tackling pint-sized opponents for the Northside Braves football team, 7-year-old Kevonte’ desperately needed a nap. Without a bed, he passed out on the floor of the near-empty second bedroom in his mother’s apartment.

One room away, his 4-year-old sister, Zanaya, snoozed away on the living room sofa, after a long day cheering for the Braves from the sidelines on Saturday.

Kevonte’ and Zanaya are accustomed to not having beds. Since outgrowing toddler beds, now given away to other family, they’ve alternated between sleeping on the couch, sharing a bed with their mom, or sleeping on the floor in front of the TV, sleepover style.

“We make it fun for them. We’ve kind of adjusted to it,” their mom, Chiquita Henix, said.

Now, Kevonte’ and Zanaya will have a new normal: Sleeping in bunk beds installed Saturday afternoon by volunteers from a new northwest Houston chapter of the nonprofit Sleep in Heavenly Peace.

Less than two hours after volunteers started filing through Henix’s apartment with pieces of the bed, Kevonte’ was basking in a new view of his room from the top bunk atop Minions-themed bedding. Below, Zanaya was already pretending to sleep under the striped covers of her bed.

Earlier in the day, dozens of volunteers gathered at the MET Church near Cypress Creek High School to turn raw lumber into more than 30 bed kits. From there, volunteers went out in small groups and delivered 19 beds to families across Houston.

“I don’t think we have a clue of what the need is — this just the tip of the iceberg,” said Gary Akin, the founder and president of the new chapter.

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Akin first heard about Sleep in Heavenly Peace on a Facebook show called Returning the Favor, hosted by Mike Rowe, the TV host of Dirty Jobs fame. Rowe interviewed the couple who started the nonprofit in their garage and presented them with a new headquarters in their hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho.

When that episode first aired in early 2018, Sleep in Heavenly Peace had 22 chapters. More than 8 million views later, there are 102 chapters, with more in the works.

When Akin saw the video seven months ago, he’d been building homes with a local Habitat for Humanity chapter for 25 years. He and a core group of friends worked together there, went on mission trips, and found their own projects to work on. In 2005, they started rebuilding homes damaged by hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Harvey from Beaumont to Livingston. They called themselves “Have Tools; Will Travel.”

At 81, Akin said he’s “less agile on the job site” than he used to be. But beds are easier to build than homes, and he knew his crew would be excited to help with that, too.

“It ties in so well with Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “We don’t know for sure, but some of us have estimated that when people move into a brand-new Habitat for Humanity house, probably 60 percent of them don’t have beds for kids. Having a house of your own, when you can, and certainly having a bed of your own — that you can call your own — makes a big difference.”

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, about 1 in 5 kids lives below the federal poverty line, although the sheer number of kids in poverty decreased by almost 3 million from 2010 to 2016. It’s not clear how many of those kids have beds, however.

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The requirements to apply online for beds from Sleep in Heavenly Peace are simple: You must have at least one kid sleeping on the floor of your apartment or house. It only provides beds for children up to 17 and the nonprofit almost always works with families.

Akin said he networks any way he can but mostly relies on his church and social media to find families in need of beds. His wife, Nikki Akin, runs the chapter’s Facebook page.

“Most of the time, I never fail to pass out a brochure, even at the McDonald’s drive thru, and ask, ‘Who do you know?’” he said.

Chiquita Henix learned about Sleep in Heavenly Peace from Akin himself in the Walmart parking lot as she helped Akin load supplies into his truck a few weeks ago. Henix thought about their sleeping situation: Six people and one queen size bed, which she got from free after Hurricane Harvey.

Kevonte’ and Zenaya usually shared Henix’s bed. In the living room, her niece slept on the couch during the day, then swaps with her two daughters when she heads to work the night shift.

They all moved into the apartment in July, when Henix started working as a personal shopper at Walmart. Before that, she was seasonal at an Amazon warehouse, but after the holidays, the only open full-time positions were night shifts. They were evicted and bounced around before finding the new place.

Henix’s friend bought her a microwave, and her sister donated a kitchen table. No one offered to give her beds for the kids, so their room sat empty. She planned to use their tax refund to buy some, but that was at least five months away.

Henix asked Akin if she could apply.

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Amanda and Randy Byer, a League City couple with six children, were among the volunteers at Akin’s chapter’s build day Saturday. They’re starting another chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace that will serve southeast Houston, including Galveston, Baytown and Alvin.

That will be the third one serving the Houston area. The first serves the Spring and Cypress areas.

When they watched the Paying it Forward video, they wept, Randy Byer said.

As a contractor, Byer has been busy since Hurricane Harvey repairing homes and businesses. Demand is still extremely high a year after the storm, he said.

“There’s so many homes I’m going to that haven’t even been started yet,” Byer said. “You have a family of four or five and they only have one bed, and kids are sleeping on the floor.”

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