Michael Knowles and partner Ginger Remington had spent two years fixing up the old RV.
Some days, nine months pregnant with their third child, Ginger could be found up on a ladder, pounding away, while Michael would go nights with no sleep – working full shifts at his HVAC job then hours in the RV installing wood.
Along with time, sweat and blood from cuts, they’d poured thousands of dollars of their savings into its overhaul.
“It’s going to be worth it,” they told each other.
More than an investment, the RV was their dream – a place where they would homeschool their kids while traveling the country.
They were a perfect team: Michael, a jack of all trades; Ginger, an artist and free spirit.
By this fall, the RV was nearly ready for the road, parked at Michael’s mom’s place at the coast in Port Charlotte.
As Hurricane Ian churned into the Gulf, the couple didn’t worry. They had lived through hurricanes before.
The birth of a dream
Sparks flew the moment they met.
Michael and Ginger had attended North Port High School at the same time. But it was only at a party after graduation that their paths crossed.
To Ginger that night, Michael was loud, hot and hilarious.
To Michael, Ginger was wild and equally funny, a gorgeous brunette with fire in her eyes.
But they were different, too.
Michael, who had grown up in North Port, was grounded by steady, 9-5 jobs in construction.
Ginger, who grew up in Sarasota, was a creative entrepreneur. As a kid, she’d accompanied her father, an artist, on long walks exploring city parks and streets, where he would photograph her alongside architectural relics with his old Canon camera.
After he died when she was 14, Ginger and her mother moved to North Port to be close to her grandmother.
By the time she graduated, Ginger was widely known as a budding artist – posing her friends for mixed-media photographs, taken with her father’s Canon.
Soon, Ginger and Michael were living together, planning a life.
After a year at Ringling College of Art and Design, Ginger started her own photography business.
Michael, inspired, broke from company jobs, hanging his shingle as a handyman.
Following the birth of their first son, River, in 2013, they moved around the country. They dreamed of being on the move for good.
“Just to be gypsies essentially, that was our goal,” Ginger said. It was a perfect way to homeschool their kids.
By the time their second son, Wren, was born in 2019, they were back in Florida with a run-down RV on their hands, ready to make their dream come true.
Over two years, they gutted it and installed new studs and thousands of dollars worth of wood, all while working full-time jobs.
After the birth of their daughter, Rory, Michael kept at it, building out a living room, shower area, kitchen and a bunk space for River, their oldest, plus solar panels and a composting toilet.
By September, the walls had been painted. The only thing missing were the cabinets – their designated spots outlined in chalk.
“Mike turned it into a home,” Ginger said.
Friends followed their progress on social media – and their plans, too. The first place they’d head this February, they thought, would be the Florida Keys.
But as Hurricane Ian shifted toward Southwest Florida, that all changed. Ginger’s mother in Clearwater beckoned them north.
Before evacuating, Michael moved the RV flush against the house – a good barrier, he thought, from the wind. Then he locked it up tight.
Days later, they drove eight hours – inching through traffic – back to Port Charlotte.
The closer they got, the view looked apocalyptic – trees down, homes destroyed, the National Guard humming through streets.
There sat the RV – its roof gone, the structure filled with rainwater, years of hard work and earnings afloat in a pool of muck.
For days, Michael tried to clean it out. But mold destroyed the wood.
FEMA was no help, processing only a claim for minor damage to his mother’s house.
After salvaging the RV’s parts, the couple had to accept that their dream had come to an end.
“To walk in there after the hurricane,” Michael began, trailing off – the loss still hard, months later, to describe. “To let all of that go, you know?”
“We were devastated,” Ginger said.
Cramming their family of five into his mother’s house was tolerable only when there was an end in sight. They badly needed a new plan.
Ginger blasted out queries to friends on social media, knowing they were up against a housing crisis and sky-high rents.
After weeks, she got a bite.
An old friend in Sarasota knew of a place where the owner liked to help families. The old, two-bedroom house was blocks from downtown Sarasota – near all those places Ginger once roamed with her father and his camera.
And it was a very reasonable $1,200 a month.
Ginger called the owner right away, sharing their plight.
“Please,” she told him, “I grew up here. If the RV dream is not happening, I’d love to raise my kids where I grew up.”
Within two days, Ginger and Michael were approved. They paid utility deposits while an agency connected to United Way helped them with the move-in deposit and first month’s rent.
Through December, settling in, they scrimped and saved, juggling multiple gig jobs, applying for more work. Ginger crafted Christmas decorations. They walked or drove the kids to light shows around town.
But quickly, they realized they were still in a hole.
“When we moved in here, we literally had two pennies to our name,” Michael said.
There was no way they could lose this place, he thought. After so much upheaval, they had finally found stability for the kids.
“I’m not going to be late on our first month’s rent,” he said.
Referred to The Glasser-Schoenbaum Human Services Center, Michael spoke with Chris Russi, the community fiscal agent and liaison.
She knew just where to turn and applied to Season of Sharing on their behalf. The fund paid to cover January’s rent.
The help let the couple get back on track.
“I’m beyond grateful,” Ginger said. “It was blessings. Blessings carried us through.”
Michael, now 34, is starting a job in commercial plumbing.
He’ll sacrifice the entrepreneur life for the moment, welcoming the return to a steady income to get his family on its feet.
The kids, meanwhile, are in love with their new home, so close to downtown. They walk or ride bikes to the parks. The library is a regular stop. So are the Selby Botanical Gardens and Bayfront Park, where they watch all the cool boats.
Ginger, 33, still works in photography. Maybe one day they’ll travel the country, possibly in a renovated school bus. For now, she jokes, they’ll be “stationary gypsies.”
Ginger relishes being back in Sarasota. It feels like coming home. She likes to think her dad played a part.
“I think,” she says, “this is where we were supposed to end up.”
See this story, as it originally appeared in Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jan. 22, 2023, here.
Photo by Mike Lang, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.