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The Refuge

A family's vision to provide a place for rest and shelter

TranscriptVIDEO: The Refuge

Smiles Welch, in his tie-dye T-shirt, and Space Welch, her hair in long braids, sit in the doorway of a red, white and blue school bus. This is their home, and its name is "Bernice." They drink coffee and talk about who will take their children to baseball practice. Their boys, Forest, Simon, and Eli, can be heard rustling around in the woods outside. They are chasing the family’s goats: Fluff Head, Beezer, Filgus, and Sweet Cakes. Sunlight shines through the breaks in the forest canopy. Their simple lifestyle seems so familiar now, but life was not always this comfortable.

Smiles grew up back East, on the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Space was raised in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They had parallel childhoods: parents who divorced when the children were five. At age 11, a very close grandparent died, and drugs consumed their teenage years. After high school, they both were searching for something that they felt was missing in their lives, something they had never known. Space yearned for freedom and Smiles wanted to find true love. While hitchhiking around the country, the two crossed paths. They instantly fell in love. Still, they felt that something was missing.

We want this place to be a refuge for those who need it. —Smiles Welch

They found their faith by accident one evening. While driving in town a drunk driver hit their vehicle. Smiles and Space were taken in by a couple for the night. The Good Samaritans were people of faith, and the conversation took a spiritual turn. Smiles and Space did not want to hear any of it, and they went to bed non-believers. By morning, something had happened. There had been some kind of transformation.

"God took our hearts that were stone, and gave us hearts of flesh," Smiles says. They became Born-Again Christians. They immediately began a spiritual journey, learning as much as they could about their adopted faith.

The world would say you're so poor, and yet they would look at us and say you're the richest people I have ever seen. —Smiles Welch

The couple continued hitchhiking throughout the country and found themselves living in a tent in a forest in Parkston, Maryland when Space was six months pregnant. Eventually they landed in Oregon. Forest Elmer Robert was born 25 days premature in a hospital in Eugene. With no medical coverage, they feared they would not receive the care they needed. To this day, Forest does not have his father's name on his birth certificate. The doctors failed to include it.

Two years later EliJAH Mountain was born on a toilet in their motor home parked in a church parking lot. Two years later, Simon Peter was born in a hospital outside of Arcata, California.

VIDEO PORTRAIT: Eli, Forest and Simon Play in the Woods

Space chooses to stay at home and raise her children. She drives Smiles to his job at Snowville Creamery at 4:45 a.m., then takes Forest to school. She feels as though her life is multiplied by three.

"Everything I am pouring into these kids, that’s my life being magnified. I might not be able to contribute to the world right now, but what I am pouring into these kids might take a little while to manifest but it is triple the effect I could have, rather just being me trying to do something good for the world around me." she says.

What you're pouring into this land is not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of generations to come. —Space Welch

The school bus is small for five people. Shelves are stacked to the ceiling, filled with clothes and food. Headlamps hang from a bungee cord. There are touches of home, like a bookcase Smiles built. They improvise solutions to simple problems that do not exist in traditional houses.The kids warm bricks on the wood-burning stove and place them at their feet to keep warm during winter. Eli pulls out a rollaway bed every night, and Forest sleeps on the couch. There is no running water. They compost their waste. They have to start a generator in order to charge their cell phones. With only the small stove in the bus, it often gets cold during the long Appalachian winters. Smiles often gets up in the middle of the night to refuel the fire.

Up until now, Space has homeschooled all three of her boys. She believes homeschooling helps her kids learn according to their personal needs, rather than forcing them to fit into the formulaic standards of a public school. Forest is now 12, and this is his first year in public school. He chose to leave the homeschooling life to have new experiences with new people at school. Space will continue to teach the two other boys at home until they decide to follow in their brother’s footsteps.

VIDEO PORTRAIT: Welch Family in Front of Bernice

Smiles and Space finish their coffee and call the boys in to change clothes for baseball practice. As they come running down the hill, which is thick with overgrown pines and reminiscent of the Christmas tree farm that once stood there, Smiles and Space can hear the boys laughing. The boys are running and pushing each other along the way, racing to see who can get to "Bernice" first. Smiles and Space found each other in the intersection of their separate and challenging lives. After years of searching, they found their peace.

"I would have never in a million years guessed this is where my life was headed," Smiles says. "But I would not change one minute of it."

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