BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Francesca McCall and her younger sister Chantale had always promised to take care of each other's kids if anything ever happened to either.
When Chantale died in September from COVID-19, her sister, who was already raising seven kids of her own, didn't hesitate to welcome Chantale's five children into her Birmingham, Alabama, home.
"We always said that we didn't want our kids to be separated. We wanted our kids to stay together," McCall, 40, told CNN.
The 12 children range in age from 1 to 17, and McCall, who's a single mother, said living together has been a challenge.
"We have all the boys in one room and we have all the girls in the other two rooms, so everybody's kind of just on top of one another," she said. "So we've been making the best out of the situation."
McCall said Chantale McCall was doing well when she was first hospitalized in Selma, where she lives, but her condition worsened and she was taken to a Birmingham hospital and put on a ventilator.
She died on September 16 and her husband, Rance Martin, died from the disease on October 25 -- which would have been Chantale's 35th birthday.
McCall said she and her mother and children had stayed with Chantale the weekend before she tested positive for COVID-19. Martin had been in and out of the hospital, but they didn't know he had the virus until later.
The rest of the family tested negative for the coronavirus, despite their close contact, she said.
McCall said her sister worked for a home health agency and was always very careful.
"She did all the proper precautions. She wore the mask, she kept her distance, she did the proper hand washing and all the proper things she was supposed to do," McCall said.
McCall said the kids are holding up, but it's been hard -- especially with Christmas coming soon.
"They're doing okay at times and at times they break down, so they're having their days and their moments," she said. "It's been very hard losing their friends, church family and basically everything that's held dear to them."
The children are all going to school virtually right now and aren't really eager to go to school in person because they don't want to risk getting COVID-19 or spreading it to someone else.
McCall is able to work from home, for now, and her mother is staying with her to help out.
"It's a little chaotic at times, trying to get everybody online for school and getting them fed before they get in school," she said. "Once you get them up and get them situated it's okay."
She's also getting a lot of help from the community and her church.
"She loves these children with all of [her] heart," said Carla McDonald, who's with the church, in a letter. "She is not the one to ask for assistance from anyone. She is just trying to raise 12 children and meet their everyday needs not only for Christmas."
McDonald helped create a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $56,000 for the family and said church members are doing other things for them.
"I really, really appreciate it, McCall said.
She said they're going to have a Christmas balloon release in Chantale's memory.
"Our plan for Christmas is celebrating my sister's life and her legacy she leaves behind," McCall said.
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