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Rebuilding a girl's dream home after tragedy

updated 2:45 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Suzannah Kolbeck, left, and her daughter, Sicily, worked together to build a tiny house. It started as a project for school, but the focus -- and lessons -- changed after the accidental death of Dane Kolbeck, Suzannah's husband and Sicily's father. Suzannah Kolbeck, left, and her daughter, Sicily, worked together to build a tiny house. It started as a project for school, but the focus -- and lessons -- changed after the accidental death of Dane Kolbeck, Suzannah's husband and Sicily's father.
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Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
Tiny house, big lessons
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Georgia teen Sicily Kolbeck planned to build a tiny house as a school project
  • Shortly after her family began construction, her father died in a car accident
  • Sicily and her mother recently finished building the home, with the help of many

Marietta, Georgia (CNN) -- As the school year came to a close, 12-year-old Sicily Kolbeck found herself still without a project. It was a key requirement at the small, independent school she attended just outside Atlanta. If she found the right one -- something big and passion-driven -- it could set the course for her entire next academic year.

She thought maybe she could start a natural makeup line or dive into some type of research.

Or she could just keep wasting time online.

As she clicked around, she stumbled into the idea of tiny houses -- dwellings that pack the conveniences of modern homes into a couple hundred square feet. She found a rabid community around them, blogs and documentaries filled with DIY builders and eco-lovers and folks who lived happily with less.

This could be it, Sicily thought. She'd hardly swung a hammer before, but maybe she could build a tiny house.

She remembered "renovating" the loft in their old barn to make it homier, and how she once turned a massive TV box into a personal playhouse, complete with a doorbell and place settings at the table. Tiny houses became a bit of an obsession, and just in time for school.

"This was the only idea I had," confessed Sicily, who recently turned 14.

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Her parents didn't blink. It was perfect. It didn't matter that Sicily was a child. She craved independence and a space of her own, she said -- something that would be all hers.

Sicily would be the architect, builder, fund-raiser and client.

Her mother and teacher who had founded her school, Suzannah Kolbeck, would serve as the project manager, the guide to making plans and reaching milestones. She would help create a budget and manage the science and art that goes into constructing a home.

Dane Kolbeck, Sicily's dad, would help with the hands-on. He was a sailor and woodworker with a great collection of tools, but he'd never built a house, and certainly not with a middle-schooler in charge.

He would provide the guidance needed to get the project off the ground, and although they didn't know it at the time, the spark to finish it, even after unimaginable tragedy.

She launched a blog, La Petite Maison, a nod to the French classes her mother insisted she take, and an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign that quickly exceeded its $1,500 goal. She drew clumsy blueprints -- piles and piles of possibilities -- then built scale models and a birdhouse that introduced her to power tools.

The first few weeks of construction in January 2013 were rocky. Dane was impatient, and it was hard for him not to snatch the buzzing tools away from his daughter. Meanwhile, Sicily was exasperated when his well-trained hands homed in on her house. It took a little while, but they were starting to understand how to work together.

"He kind of taught me a lot of the lingo -- flush, plumb, even, straight, square," Sicily said. "If somebody needs something jigsawed, I got that on lock now. I can figure it out, whatever it is. There was a lot of figuring things out."

Then everything came to a halt when Suzannah's phone rang around 4 a.m. February 16. She was out of town, caring for a relative. An unfamiliar voice told her Sicily was safe in bed at home, but Dane had been in a car accident.

The whole idea of home, tiny or otherwise, shook: Suzannah's husband and Sicily's father was gone.

'It's all about the try'

In the first blank hours, the mother and daughter just sat on the couch at home. There was bawling, and sometimes silence. Text messages and phone calls came, then trickles of friends and family, then streams. They ate whatever food people brought and drank whatever coffee was made, and talked about Dane, or avoided talk about him. They played, by Sicily's estimate, 20 million games of gin rummy.

After a few days, Luke Bair, like everyone else, was desperate for another distraction. He's an old friend of the Kolbecks, a homebuilder by trade who encouraged the family to take on the tiny house project, and tweaked some of the early blueprints and plans. He'd seen Dane and Sicily just a few weeks earlier, when they picked up a trailer that would bear the load of the tiny house.

When he looked out the window, he saw the unfinished work of his best friend and the dashed childhood of a young girl.

"We can sit around here and whine and cry and sob and tell stories and drink beer and do whatever we have to do," he remembers saying. "We can also just start working on the project."

They trudged to Home Depot, bought materials and began construction once again. Sicily embraced the distraction and direction -- and the help. It seemed everyone who stopped by drove in a nail or raised a board. Within a few days, there was a shell of a small home in the backyard. Inside the pine and plywood, Sicily could see her home in three dimensions.

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But as mourners dispersed, there was no life as usual at home.

School didn't resonate like before for teacher or student. Suzannah calculated that she couldn't possibly be a single parent and a school principal. She placed her small school on hiatus, uncertain it would ever come back. For Sicily, the academic year faded to an end. They tiny house sat outside, untouched.

That spring and summer, Sicily's competitive softball team, the Georgia Titans, helped ground her in the moment. She's a catcher, a team leader -- but she wasn't really herself. Her dad had been a coach, and she still listened for his booming voice and sailor's mouth from the dugout. She turned up at tournaments without her cleats, socks or sunscreen. Eating on the road, she wouldn't order her own meals. She stopped making decisions, small or large. She cried more.

"She started saying, 'I can't' a lot," said Suzannah, 43. "And I started saying, 'I can't,' too, 'but it's all about the try.' We have to make decisions about what we we're going to do."

On a break between sports and school, mother and daughter decided they needed to leave. They took a trip, just the two of them on the road for five weeks, crashing at friends' homes from North Carolina to Philadelphia. Suzannah drove, Sicily directed. To navigate every traffic jam or country road, they needed each other.

"He used to drive, and she would be the navigator," Sicily said of her parents. "Now I was the navigator. I could no longer live with indecision."

The trip pulled them away from home -- the "big" house where they'd lived with Dane and the tiny house they'd all planned to build together. But when the road led them back to Georgia, they looked back at the plywood husk in the yard and made a decision. It was time to rebuild.

'The act is more powerful than the product'

Once again, construction began, and this time, it wasn't just Sicily, or just her family. Sicily and Suzannah became regular posters to tiny house Facebook groups; a simple question could draw dozens of creative answers. Friends and a few experts pitched in; a retiree with building skills showed Sicily how to wire the house; the workers at the local Home Depot taught them how to plumb the kitchen and bathroom. A roofer donated time and materials to top the house (the only part Suzannah refused to let her teen handle on her own.)

"People just showed up, resources just showed up," said Andrew Odom, creator of the blog Tiny r(E)volution, who met the Kolbecks when Sicily first planned her tiny house. "They thought they were going to go at it just as a family. They didn't know how much they needed a community.

"The project could have easily been scrapped. Whether she ever lives in it or not, it bears the touch of everyone special in her life time, including her dad."

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There was still a lot for Sicily to learn, but the project was no longer about school. Finishing meant hours and days of focus, frustration and sometimes weeping and screaming. It meant working around her tiny house's crooked corners, rebuilding a rickety staircase and painting about a dozen coats of white on the yellow pine paneling inside. Sicily labored over how to fit an oddly shaped window into the loft. She was a pro at fitting squares and rectangles, but this one was special; it came from her dad's boat.

"It wasn't until later ... probably these past couple months that I realized why I'm doing this," Sicily said. "I'm doing it to show him that I can do stuff, to show him that I am capable and he doesn't need to yell at me when I can't use the drill."

Others touched Sicily's house through dollars donated, advice offered and help volunteered. That, as much as the construction, was where the learning came in, said family friend Luke Bair. That's where the healing happened, too.

It came when a girl and her mom shimmed the windows or tacked on the siding, and when friends old and new rallied to help them along. The house isn't a memorial to Dane, Bair said. Building it was.

"It's not dreams anymore. It's skill. The act is more powerful than the product," Bair said. "Regardless of what it looks like and who appreciates it, the process had to be done."

'Who would have thought I would finish?'

In April, after the final coats were painted, fresh gray curtains were hung and a few throw pillows fluffed, it was official.

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"My house is DONE," Sicily wrote on her blog. "Yes, yes, yes. I know. Who would have thought I would finish? Not me. Just kidding. (Kind of.)"

She's 14 now, and the owner of a 128-square foot tiny home with a fully functional kitchen and bathroom, a queen-sized bed for sleeping and closets and cubbies for storage. It took a year and a half and nearly $10,000 to pull it off.

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For now, it lives in the Kolbeck's backyard in Georgia. They don't live in it full time, but it's a cozy escape when the world feels too big and the ground too shaky. This summer, it will move with the Kolbecks when they return to Suzannah's hometown of Baltimore. There, Sicily will attend a public high school, play softball and consider her next project; she'd like to rebuild an old Volkswagen Beetle.

"We're able to leave because it's done," Suzannah said. "To have given up would've felt wrong, just a reminder that we didn't do something, that we'd been beaten by this awful event, that we didn't care. We're able to leave because it's done."

Home, Sicily knows now, can go anywhere with her.

"I don't think I'm ever going to be 100% great, or 100% OK," Sicily said. "It's not like learning how to forget him, but learning how to go through life remembering him -- and still kind of living and being happy."

What was the most memorable project of your school years? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living's Facebook page!

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