ZILLAH — Like many sisters, Delilah Dawson and Valeria Alejandre fall out occasionally. Seeing Valeria with a daisy tucked in her French braids, Delilah wanted the same. When that didn’t happen immediately, her face crumpled and tears pooled in her eyes. But Mom soon headed it off.
Maggie Dawson knows just what to do when her youngest are at odds. She reached for 2-year-old Delilah’s hand and guided her across their sunny backyard to the daisies in the corner. Soon Delilah sported the same floral accessory as 3-year-old Valeria. Best friendship restored.
“We spend a lot of time out here. ... This is the big reason we bought it, the yard,” said Eugene Dawson, her husband of almost 12 years. Maggie and Eugene, a nuclear security officer at the Columbia Generating Station on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, purchased the house in 2015, after they had rented a smaller house and saved as much as they could for five years.
He showed off the garden beds he tends with the girls’ big brother Jesus Alejandre, who is 17.
“Jesus is the guy who helps me. We’ve got a total of five garden beds,” Eugene said. Last year they yielded dozens of cherry tomatoes.
“We had all kinds of peppers, too,” Jesus added.
He paused, remembering his mother, Maria Gonzalez-Castillo. He helped her in the garden, too. They grew corn, cucumbers and peppers only a few years ago when Jesus, his seven siblings and his parents lived outside Granger in a trailer near an orchard on Cherry Hill.
On a night so horrible it defies description, their lives changed. On June 1, 2017, their father, Jaime Munguia Alejandre, killed their mother. A jury found Alejandre guilty in December 2018 of second-degree murder and unlawfully disposing of a body. He is serving a
27 1/2-year prison term.
The couple’s two oldest children testified against him because they wanted him caught and punished for what he did, they said during the trial. Afterward, they thanked the court and others for helping them and their siblings. They said, again, how they wished the events of that night had never happened.
The children still wish that was true. They still miss their parents. On the sunniest of summer days during a recent visit to one of their favorite places, Doc’s Pizza in Granger, two of the older children spoke softly, words dwindling as memories and emotion overcame them.
News spread quickly after the tragedy, and Yakima Valley residents stepped up to help. Employees of Stadelman Fruit, where Gonzalez-Castillo had worked, held a benefit car wash at the Sunnyside Auto Zone. A yard sale at Granger Inspire raised money for the children. Granger School District staff collected clothes and gift cards to Walmart and Safeway. Hanford employees, friends and relatives collected dozens of Christmas presents.
Two days after the tragedy, all eight children moved in with Maggie and Eugene, their aunt and uncle; Maggie is Jaime Munguia Alejandre’s sister. The Dawson family of four immediately grew to 12 — along with Delilah, the couple have a 9-year-old son, Eugene “Polo” Dawson IV.
Maggie and Eugene pondered the future they wanted for the Alejandre children in long, emotional conversations. They prayed about it. The responsibility was daunting and the future would not be easy, but they did not want the children in foster care. They did not want them separated.
With guidance from attorneys Pat and Sonia True, Eugene and Maggie got legal custody of the seven youngest Alejandre children on Sept. 8, 2017. It was a natural step. Their nieces and nephews, joining their two biological children, were home with them for good.
“They’ve been to our house so many times,” Eugene said. “This is the kids’ sanctuary. Their cousins come over all the time.”
That is one of the many reasons why they don’t want to move, despite his nearly hour-and-a-half drive each way every work day. Their home is close to family and full of happiness. The children are thriving in Zillah schools.
Though the oldest of the seven Alejandre children living with them has since moved out, Eugene and Maggie could use more room for their family. Late last year, architect Ron Pelson, an owner of Traditional Designs, Inc. in Yakima, donated his services to design an addition.
A contractor from Yakima has quoted the Dawsons $105,000 for the job. Though Eugene works as much as he can and Maggie budgets as best she can, and they are appreciative of all the help they and the children have received, they are hopeful for a little more. The couple created a GoFundMe account for donations for the addition.
Polo shares his bedroom with Jesus and Jaime Jr., who is 15; Delilah and Valeria share space with America, 16, Esperanza, 11, and Victoria, 7.
“The new addition to the house would be for our nephews and nieces so our children can have their rooms back. In the past two years, we have made it work with what we have and we have focused on making the best of every challenge we face,” the summary notes.
“If it’s in your heart to donate, anything will help. ... For all of you reading this, we are asking for prayers, so that this project becomes reality to our family. It’s a dream because without your contributions or your prayers, this will not be possible.”
Maggie and Eugene would welcome donated building material and donated labor. They will help make the addition happen however they can, even with their own hands. That way, when the children leave for college or the world beyond, they will always have a place to stay.
The couple believe that with such support and love and guidance, life will work out. Their rules for their large family are firm — there’s not much screen time of any kind in this house and everyone has regular responsibilities — but Eugene and Maggie’s love for their children is limitless.
They also share a strong faith. The family attends Zillah Catholic Church of the Resurrection.
“You never know what God prepares you for,” Maggie said.
• • •
The Dawson home clearly welcomes children. A rainbow of chalk art brightens the concrete driveway and a basketball goal stands near the garage. Inside it’s orderly but crowded in places. Organization takes creativity with so many people in one house.
“We run out of storage so we put things on top of other things,” Eugene said, gesturing toward pots and pans stacked high on a large shelf in the kitchen. In an adjacent hallway, a closet became a pantry. There’s a big bin for potatoes and onions. Books and shallow boxes fill the nooks around the television in the family room.
“They’ve got a lot of games,” he said.
As one of 10 children, Maggie is familiar with the bumping into each other and the need to share. Eugene, a native of Hawaii, is one of four. Their son Polo is 9. He was born two years to the day after they married on Sept. 2, 2007. Their daughter Delilah is a typical 2-year-old, sometimes dramatic but usually happy.
“I think my mind changed when I got all these kids,” Eugene Dawson said thoughtfully, surprisingly soft-spoken for a physically imposing man.
The couple met while Eugene was in the Army and stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. He was serving in a military police unit, in a rotation that brought him to the Yakima Training Center. The petite woman he saw at a club one night with her friends caught his eye.
“She was dancing with another guy and I approached her anyway,” said Eugene, who is 35. “Our first date was at El Porton. We dated for a year.”
Maggie, 37, has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Heritage University in Toppenish. Soon after they married, Eugene deployed to Afghanistan. On his return he decided to leave the Army, knowing the strain of military service on families and relationships.
Eugene retains his military bearing and strong work ethic, with high expectations for himself and his family. He works 12-hour shifts at Hanford at least 14 days every month, up to 16 or 17 days a month if possible. He tries to get as much overtime as he can. Maggie is a stay-at-home mom.
Growing up, Eugene learned hands-on about the construction business. His knowledge comes in handy, for him and the children.
“I’ve always been good at fixing stuff ... and I teach them how to fix things,” Eugene said. “Not just to take care of them but prepare them for the world.”
Schoolwork and chores are top priority. Most of the children prefer to read but must finish their regular jobs at home first. Everyone is responsible for keeping their rooms neat.
“After we’re done with all of our responsibilities, we relax,” Esperanza said.
That includes occasional family outings to places such as Doc’s Pizza, a popular kid-centric landmark at the Cherry Hill Golf Course. The three indoor areas — the antique room, the sports room and a ‘50s-style diner — feature video and skill games, fun decor and televisions.
“Pizza!” Polo shouted.
“Guys, go wash your hands,” Maggie said.
“Where’s Delilah?” Eugene asked.
Everyone filed into two vehicles, necessary if the entire family is going.
“Round up, ladies and gentlemen,” Eugene said amid the exodus.
• • •
Outside Doc’s, the frog pond and miniature golf are big attractions. There’s a batting cage, driving range and basketball court. Employees welcomed the children inside like old friends.
“We had Valeria’s birthday here,” Eugene said. “They’re so used to this place.”
A few sat down at long tables for slices of pepperoni and pineapple pizzas while others headed to skill games. Ice cream came later. They especially like huckleberry, Maggie said.
As for Maggie, “I could use the caffeine. I could use all the caffeine,” she said with exaggerated exhaustion.
The Alejandre children’s love for Doc’s began several years ago, when they were all still together in the trailer on Nass Road, a short drive away.
Close in age, America and Jesus share a love of soccer and an easy rapport, almost finishing each other’s sentences as they sat side by side and talked about their parents while the younger children played miniature golf, shot baskets and enjoyed ice cream.
Their father worked in the hop fields and their mother at Stadelman Fruit. She occasionally brought cherries home and took vegetables she and Jesus grew to work, where she sold them for extra cash.
Every penny helped. Maria returned to Stadelman soon after having Valeria, they recalled. The family didn’t go out much as a group and their parents were strict, correcting them if they did something wrong, America said. The family was close and the children had no idea what would happen after the tragedy.
America and Jesus have fond memories of their parents and would rather dwell on those. The trailer where the family lived is gone and they don’t go back; their future is the focus now. They are thankful for everyone who helped them reach this point, especially Maggie and Eugene.
“They know what they’re doing,” she said.
“It’s helping us grow up,” he added.
• • •
As one of the older children, Jesus needed to be there for his siblings, he said. He’s attentive and nurturing, gently taking the two youngest children away from the frog pond outside Doc’s over their mild protests. Maggie smiled at the sight, knowing how much those two little girls, inseparable themselves, tag along after their older brother.
Favorite sports have offered solace and focus for most of the children — wrestling and soccer, basketball and track. This summer, Esperanza, Polo and Victoria participated in soccer camp, Jesus and Jaime in a wrestling camp. Almost all of them have wrestled, even if just to learn the basics from Eugene. The garage is his training facility.
That includes the girls. Victoria and Esperanza have embraced wrestling; Esperanza placed second in regional competition. “She beats up the boys. She’s tough,” Eugene said proudly.
“I made the girls wrestle because I want them to be tough — not to be afraid of a boy or a man,” he said.
The Alejandre girls are strong and confident. Victoria, wearing a shirt with the words “This girl is going to change the world” in rainbow thread around the collar, wants to be a veterinarian. Esperanza hopes to be a doctor.
America took her first plane ride earlier this spring, a trip to Washington, D.C., with her fellow Future Business Leaders of America members from Zillah. She is learning how to drive this summer, and when school starts Aug. 28 will attend Zillah High School half the school day, YV-Tech the other. The technical skills center offers college prep and career training.
She plans to pursue physical therapy. Jesus wants to be a military police officer. Jaime hopes to join the military and become an engineer.
Their mother rests in Zillah Cemetery. The children have made many trips together to lay flowers on her grave.
Together. That single word has made an inestimable difference in their lives. They are thankful.
“I guess it was just like a blessing that we’re all still together,” Jesus said.