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Four siblings left homeless in Hawaii are discovering paradise in wintry Minnesota.
After two months on their own, the children were reunited Friday with their dad, who had spent months struggling to bring them back together.
"I'm just so glad everybody is OK," said Jake Snyder, 47, as he watched his kids -- Z, 16; Emily, 15; Jake, 14, and Joey, 11 -- gather up the bags that held all their belongings after their flight arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday afternoon.
Snyder last saw his kids when he said goodbye to them in early September. A carpenter, he had chased construction jobs across the country while raising the children as a single parent. "We had some tough times," he said. But even in the hardest of times, Snyder made sure his three sons and daughter were in school.
In March, he moved to a job in Hawaii with his kids. His ex-wife joined them after being estranged from the family for years, Snyder said.
But by fall, Snyder was forced to find work back on the mainland, first in Oregon and then in Minnesota. He left his children with their mother rather than uproot them again. They could stay in school, keep friends, feel safe in a home, he reasoned.
"It sounded OK to me," Snyder said. "But it ended up being anything but OK." Their mom, he said, walked out of their lives again, leaving the children to live under a tarp in some bushes where other homeless kids had set up camp. Sometimes, two of the kids slept in their old, broken-down van nearby.
Snyder didn't hear about what had happened until weeks later, when he discovered that his kids weren't in school and were living on the streets. "I was sick about it," he said.
Without the money to fly back to Hawaii or to get his children to Minnesota, he wrote to social service agencies, foundations and anyone else who he thought might help.
About two weeks ago, Salvation Army workers stepped up to reunite the family. They bought plane tickets, orchestrated temporary housing, bought food vouchers, found winter coats and provided school supplies.
Happy to be back with Dad
"I'm actually pretty stoked about being on the main rock again," the younger Jake said in an interview. "I grew up in the mountains my whole life. It was cold in the winter, and [in Hawaii] it's hot every day, and it's Christmastime. People are putting up lights, and there's no snow and it's 80 degrees. Sort of trips me out. Every time I've been around Christmas, it was snowing and stuff, and there was hot chocolate and people were in coats."
But coming to Minnesota isn't about finding the quintessential Christmas scene. For Jake, it's about being a family again, going back to school, living in a home.
"I'm happy to get back in a house with my dad because I really do miss my dad," Jake said. "When he first left, I had this feeling he didn't love us anymore. But my dad was doing everything and anything to get us out of [Hawaii]. He was putting himself on the line. He sacrificed a lot of stuff.
"I now know he really loves me, and I really love him too. That's why I'm so happy to go back with him."
Living on the streets, Jake, his brothers and his sister were scared. They had been homeless before, but their dad had always been at their side. When they were hungry, he had answered their needs. "When I was homeless by myself, I had no one to ask," Jake said.
So they turned to strangers. They hung out at McDonald's and found people who would buy them a meal or give them money. Sometimes they found places that offered meals for the homeless.
"We would sit at this wall down in town and someone from a restaurant would pull over in their car, get out and give us a couple plates of food," Jake said. "Some days we survived off of that."
He didn't like to beg for money. "They give you weird stares because I look like I'm 11 years old," he said. "They would say, 'Hey, shouldn't you ask your parents?' And then we would have a full conversation about it and they would give us some money.
"But I would much rather earn my money than ask for it," Jake added. He and his siblings found odd jobs cleaning houses, moving rocks, mowing lawns, building stuff.
'It was life-changing'
The ordeal has left Jake feeling stronger, wiser and more grateful for what he does have. "It was life-changing," he said.
Before, he and his brothers and sister "didn't like each other very much," he said. But now, "we're, like, stuck together. We've been through so much for our age and had to grow up really fast. We realize that there are bigger things in life than the stupid things we fight over.
"When I got [to Hawaii], I was really a little kid," Jake said. "I'm still a little kid, but my mind has expanded. I have more street smarts."
But now Jake wants a stable home with his dad. "I want to live out the rest of my childhood," Jake said. "I want to go back to school, graduate and then get a good job."
Together the family will move to Cass Lake, Minn., where the elder Jake Snyder is working as carpenter in return for a place to live. But the situation won't accommodate his family, so Snyder hopes to land a more permanent job and a more permanent place to live.
"I'm pretty tired of jumping from job to job everywhere," he said. "I just want to get them all back on track and give them some stability."
And the younger Jake wants exactly that for his dad. "I want a home in one place and know that my dad will be in one place until he's retired."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788