On her living room wall, a photo clock displays beautiful family pictures where typically, there would have been numbers. In her bedrooms, cool colours and decorative accents exude a peaceful, airy hotel feel, while in front and back retreats outside the house sit charming ensembles of pallet furniture, pulled together by cushion accessories and wooden wall décor. There is also a small playhouse.
Like a growing number of people in T&T, being confined at home has brought out the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) crafter in entrepreneur and mother of eight, Niki Rodrigues. And balancing a budget for a family of ten has sharpened her creative instinct even more, she told Sunday Guardian recently.
Rodrigues is the proud mother of Matthew, 20; Andrew, 19; Aimée-Leigh, 15; Brianna, 13; Joseph (Joey), nine; Jesse, six; Ciara, four and Desirée, two.
She wears numerous hats with one of them being a founding member of the HomeSchool Association of Trinidad and Tobago, she has been featured in local electronic and print media. The owner of Daughters of the King boutique and image consultancy, Made in His Image which have had to close under COVID-19 restrictions, she has come up with inventive money-saving ideas in a time when her household has been left with a single income from her husband, Jim, a finance manager.
Ever a creative spirit, Rodrigues did not have too look far to find solutions last year after being caught in a nationwide shutdown shortly after her return from a shopping trip abroad to restock her boutique. She googled some things, figured out others and started churning out DIY projects.
Since then, her Diego Martin home has been transformed inside and out. Her first project was coming up with a way to dry clothes after their dryer quit just after they had some extensive underground plumbing done. She built outdoor PVC clothes drying rack. Next, she made a garden out of guttering, a raised garden bed and wooden planters, and has pimentos, oregano, chives, melongene, squash, starch mangoes and guava to show for her efforts.
The handy mum has also crafted a stained coffee table using crates she built herself since they were quite difficult to source. Using pallets, she made a sectional, a playhouse for the little ones, and most recently a planter that doubles as a privacy screen. She transformed their old front doors—which she discovered to be mahogany during the process—into benches and a small table. These pieces she used to create three outdoors nooks, complete with throw pillows, faux window shutters and wall decorations.
Even the younger children whom they have nicknamed, “the Littles”—the older four are called, “the Awesome Foursome”—got their personal makeovers.
“The last trip we made which was February 2020, I said I wasn't going to buy any clothes for the kids—remember I'm travelling every three to four months. I said we are making a trip in July, everybody will get what they want then. Little did I know that was going to be the last trip,” Rodrigues laughed.
“The Littles” who are still growing rapidly have been sporting dresses, skirts, tops and even pants sewn by their mother. Rodrigues said she had to learn quickly and did so through online tutorials and by following the patterns of their store-bought clothes.
The children also join in the projects, lapping up the new experiences. Joey is a dedicated gardener and has managed to get lovely pimentos where Rodrigues herself has struggled, she informed. Jesse too has shown an interest in gardening. When there was an excess of oregano, Joey suggested drying the aromatic herb. With the help of his mother and younger brother, they dried the leaves in the oven, packed them in bags and shared them with neighbours.
Not to be left out, older girls, Aimée-Leigh and Brianna have had their own registered businesses in cupcakes and eco-friendly bags and accessories respectively.
People wowed by the items produced by Rodrigues and her family have been making requests.
Niki Rodrigues repurposed old doors as benches and a table for this outdoor nook.
Through her Made in His Image consultancy which she started in 2015, Rodrigues did workshops from 2018 entitled “Gifted Hands” which allowed children and teens to explore their creative talents through cooking, jewelry making and other arts. She often had people come in and share their expertise in their particular field.
“I wanted to share that with other parents because they felt there was something special about my children. Everybody can do this, but because of how the conventional school system is–you have the children in school six hours a day, then they have homework or lessons on top of that, so children are no longer allowed to be children. It was Einstein who said that playing is basically the language of childhood. That's how they learn.”
A programme for adults, “Skill Up” also emerged and Rodrigues is looking forward to launching her newest venture, “the DIY Series” virtually on August 7. It will include woodworking with Rodrigues and acrylic painting with a young artist.
An avid blogger, Rodrigues has shared some of her life knowledge in “Chronicles of an Outnumbered Mom” on WordPress and she started a Facebook page, “Living Large by Faith” in 2020.
To keep her large household functioning, Rodrigues, a born-again Christian, draws on her spirituality. God has also been the main force in her marriage of 23 years, she said. She wed a 22-year-old Jim when she was 21. They had met on a second occasion at his church after having been introduced years earlier while she attended St Francois Girls' College and he, Fatima College.
“We are best friends. We not only love each other, but like each other which is an anomaly for most people which is sad, but we've kept God at the centre and he has kept our union.”
Told that she would be hardly likely to bear children, she and her husband were pleasantly surprised three years into their marriage, when she became pregnant with Matthew. Between a short stint at a bank, working as a flight attendant and later as a secondary school teacher in the public and then private school system and finally becoming an entrepreneur, Rodrigues would give birth seven more times. Far from the single-parent home which she had shared with her mother, great-grandmother and younger sister as a child, Rodrigues said she was lucky to have a supportive husband who even encouraged her to stay at home full time after her first daughter was born.
A playhouse done by Niki Rodriguez. Three of the "Littles" snuggle in the playhouse.
Despite their circumstance while growing up, her mother, who passed last August, tried hard to ensure that Rodrigues and her sister had opportunities and exposure to foreign countries. They spent many a vacation in New York with family.
Here is most likely where Rodrigues takes some of her influence. She has always had a creative knack, but felt constrained by an academically-oriented school system, she revealed.
As an adult, her crafting skills came to the fore after they bought their fixer-upper home when the second baby was on the way. Rodrigues recalled making a hobby of going to garage sales and re-purposing items until she could buy her own stuff back then.
Her introduction to homeschooling came through the wife of a fellow teacher while she worked in the public education system. In April 2009 she implemented it with their four children at the time. Although they were thriving academically, she felt that their critical thinking skills and other aspects of their development were being ignored.
Navigating her way through was “scary” at first, especially when the time came for Rodrigues' eldest to write SEA, she admitted. She signed up her son for the exam while continuing to homeschool him four days a week, following a Christian-American curriculum and taking Fridays to socialise, fellowship and go on field trips with their supportive homeschooling community. She did past papers with him for about two months before the exam and he passed for his first choice, QRC.
Matthew attended for Form 1 and then again in Form 4 when it came closer to CSEC. He ended up with ten passes, including nine distinctions. He is now at UWI. Her second eldest also passed for QRC. Though an outgoing child, he chose to continue to be homeschooled she said. By age 13, he had accumulated diplomas online in psychology and criminology among others. He wrote CSEC at 14 and just graduated at age 19 with a BA in Mass Communications from a local college.
When it was Aimée-Leigh's turn she was accepted at St Francois Girls' College but also preferred to remain homeschooled.
Rodrigues said her children are socialised on every trip they take outside the home since she uses them as teaching opportunities.
The family is always engaged in activities and for this vacation, creating a theme for each week. During “Nature Week” July 4-10, Rodrigues had Matthew place an artificial grass wall she had made as a backdrop for taking pictures on the floor and they surprised the others with an indoor picnic at dinner time. They have also camped indoors with blankets and Christmas light projectors flashing images of stars on the walls and ceiling in the past.
Pointing out that her family was not perfect, but doing their best for God's glory, the unconventional mother noted that the pandemic had its benefits.
“We've been affected, but brought closer. Of course, there would be some squabbles in between, having teen girls and young men, but we fared well. Everybody is still alive and happy. And we're just really grateful,” she said.
Rodrigues' upcoming DIY series may be accessed on her “Living Large by Faith” and “Made in His Image” pages on Facebook and her podcast, Homeschooling Matters, at https://anchor.fm/homeschoolingmatters.
Some of the items of clothing made by Niki Rodrigues for her children.
Q&A with Niki Rodrigues
Did you always want a large family?
No. I was an only child for 14 years. When my old classmates found me on Facebook several years ago, they were surprised. No one thought I would still be in Trinidad. (To them) I was supposed to be in New York studying business and finance. I was supposed to be a career person, but I'm happy. This is what God wanted me to do, I thought I would have found happiness in what I wanted to do, but my greatest joy and happiness is right here in my home.
With the children being homeschooled, tell me how the pandemic has affected your routine now that you are under complete lockdown.
Most people thought that because we were homeschooling we weren't affected in the least, but they don't know that we don't do field trips once a year or once a term like it happens in the traditional school. A trip to the grocery store, a trip to the gas station, all of those things were educational. They were all a part of who we were. You learn a particular thing in botany one day and you go to the Gardens to look at a particular flower or tree. You study a particular animal and you say: let's go to the zoo...all of those things we had the freedom to do.
How do you motivate yourself to keep going?
As a believer you have no option, you can not go. These children are all the motivation I need. My husband and I say it all the time. He is my biggest cheerleader, but the children are the reason why we do what we do. We are very contented, so although we travel etc, we don't run after brand names. We don't settle for mediocrity, but we're not fussy. The children propel us to do more. The pandemic caused me to look deep within to see what else I had in me. My husband has always said: you are so resourceful, so multi-talented.
I think I surprised myself and I found a lot of peace while I was building. I've always wondered why of all the professions that Jesus could have, why carpentry? His earthly father was a carpenter. I now understand why. It's a very peaceful place to be. When you can take nothing and make something or turn trash into a treasure that gives a lot of joy.
When do you take a time out and what do you do to relax then?
My business trips were my time outs even though they were very fast-paced. Even though I would have a baby in tow or would take one of them with me, we would have some alone time because they would need to experience what it's like to be with mummy alone or mummy and daddy alone. That was my time.