Weeks after being arrested and charged with child abuse following the discovery that they were living in a makeshift shelter amid squalid conditions with their three children, a Joshua Tree couple will soon move into a new home thanks to the generosity of friends and strangers.
Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, saw the property for the first time on Tuesday, according to Palm Springs television station KMIR, which spoke with the parents outside the house that same day.
The surprised and grateful couple told the station they could not believe that the single-story residence they were standing in would soon be their new home.
"I dreamed that we would be together in a regular house," Panico said, his voice choked with emotion.
It was purchased through money raised by their longtime friend Jackie Klear, who started a GoFundMe campaign seeking to raise $100,000 for the parents. She said she simply wanted to help them get back on their feet after their arrest late last month.
Kirk recalled the moment when the family's nightmare began, on Feb. 28 after armed deputies showed up on their property.
“I came out of the fort and there were three deputies holding their guns out and screaming for the kids to come out,” she told KMIR. “It was a little scary.”
After being taken into custody, they were charged with three felony counts of child abuse. San Bernardino County authorities alleged the parents did not properly feed their children and kept them in an environment that was deemed “unsafe” and “unsuitable.”
“It's shocking,” Panico said. “We had no idea anything like this would ever happen.”
After their most recent court appearance, on Tuesday, they were allowed to visit with their children, according to the GoFundMe page. The couple hadn't seen the three kids -- ages 11, 13 and 14 -- since their arrest.
A more complete picture of the family's struggles began to emerge even before the couple made their first court appearance exactly two weeks ago. The couple had fallen on hard times and were forced out of their rental home several years ago, Klear wrote on the GoFundMe.
Eventually, after staying in a trailer on Klear's property, the couple decided to move with their three children to the 5-acre land near Joshua Tree that they had purchased.
The dream was to build a home on the property. But years went by, and the family could barely afford their basic living expenses, according to Klear. The situation was only exacerbated when both parents battled illnesses for a time.
Still, what little Panico and Kirk earned from side jobs was always spent on the children, Klear said.
"The kids were fed healthy and were part of just about any activity or group that was available to the community. Soccer, Gems, Girl Scouts, Phoenix Scouts, They had park days with the homeschool groups and so on," she wrote.
Even amid hardship, the couple still found time to help others in need. Kirk recounted one instance where her husband helped change a tire for a person who was headed to court, giving the individual his spare.
Other times, she said, strangers would walk by their property appearing cold. So, they'd give them a jacket or a pair of shoes.
Community members came together and vouched for the couple, arguing that the parents were being punished for their financial situation -- and that it's time to stop criminalizing and homelessness.
“My dreams are to have this law changed,” Panico told KMIR. “So people are not so easily wrenched from their -- wherever they're living. And children wrenched from their parents? It's not right.”
The couple said they previously tried to get help from the county, but without a physical address, they didn't qualify for assistance.
Soon, they'll have one.
Their new house is still in the process of being fixed up and furnished, something that will also be paid for through the GoFundMe page. In less than two weeks, more than 750 people have donated to the cause, raising about $62,500 for the couple.
As the two prepare to move into the home, Panico and Kirk expressed gratitude to those who have helped put them there, saying the love and support is something they'll never forget -- and that one day, they hope to be able to pay it forward.
“We appreciate it. We do appreciate everybody,” Panico told the station. “Thank you to everybody who has helped and donated. We do hope we can give back somehow."
"Oh, we will. We absolutely will," Kirk added.
The two still face felony charges, though their attorney told the television station that he believes his clients will ultimately be acquitted.