How to help

Several efforts are afoot to aid Dolores Dawson’s family and others like hers:

Families Helping Families: Nonprofit needs sponsors to donate $25 to $50 to fund a gift and necessary items for each of the 199 needy families still on a waiting list. People also can volunteer to help accept, package and deliver supplies. Go to www.fhfcharleston.org, or call 724-7100. The deadline is Saturday.

Christmas Charity Drive: Effort organized by a North Charleston police officer starting at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Exchange Club, 2138 Helm Ave., North Charleston. Bring food, toys, gift cards and clothing for less fortunate families, including Dawson’s. Call Officer Jamel Foster at 276-2471.

For information about mortgage and utility bill assistance, as well as other services like job training and home weatherization, call the Charleston County Human Services Commission at 724-6760, or go to www.cchscom.com.

When she arrived at her daughter’s place, Dolores Dawson knew she was dead.

Yellow crime tape blocked the front step of 34-year-old Zakiya Lawson’s mobile home.

The North Charleston police officers gathered outside wouldn’t answer Dawson’s questions.

She knew she would be caring for Lawson’s seven children. At 62, she knew she would be a day-to-day mother again.

On that day in June, Dawson lost her daughter to domestic violence — a predicament she had rarely discussed. Lawson was slain when the father of her youngest son broke into her home on Thoroughbred Drive and shot her before turning the gun on himself, police said.

Within three weeks, Dawson’s seven grandchildren were living in her three-bedroom home in North Charleston. It had been 15 years since the last of her own eight children left her home.

She never imagined raising another batch. She never imagined feeding a boy orange juice from a sippy cup every morning. She never imagined chasing around a toddler who likes to use her cellphone as a ball.

Dawson already had been caring for her 2-year-old grandnephew. Seven more children meant eight.

She cut back the hours she worked as an in-home caregiver. She fell two months behind on her mortgage payments and a month behind on her car loan. She knew things like a Thanksgiving meal and Christmas presents would be hard to come by.

“I knew it would take a community to raise these kids,” she said. “So I prayed and prayed, and it came to pass.”

The Charleston County Human Services Commission secured financial aid to cover her mortgage for the next three years. Donors sponsored Dawson’s grandchildren through Families Helping Families, a nonprofit effort that provides presents, food and other necessities to the less fortunate during the holidays. Fellow church members and police officers hosted fundraisers and charity drives.

With fewer financial woes, Dawson focused her attention on her new family, like the grandson who wanted his mother’s carrot cake at his 16th birthday party or the youngest boy who had lost his parents but says “Mama” to everyone he encounters.

Her immediate needs fulfilled, Dawson now worries about the 199 other families in the same program that helped her.

The holiday season is particularly hard on the impoverished who can’t afford gifts for their children. Authorities also see spikes in domestic violence during the holidays — often the result of the season’s stresses.

“We still have families as large as hers that need help,” said Meredith McGrew, program coordinator for Families Helping Families. “Their everyday struggles are tragic and sad like hers, and it’s worse at this time of year.”

‘If I knew’

The day after Peter Centil Williams shot her daughter, Dawson learned more about the violence that Lawson was subjected to.

The abuse mostly stemmed from the birth of their son late last year.

In January, Dawson said Williams showed up at her daughter’s house and snatched the baby.

The next month, he punched her in Dawson’s home on Buck Pond Road. After that episode, the North Charleston Police Department got warrants for Williams’ arrest, and the 27-year-old felon was jailed months later. But he posted bail, and Lawson was afraid.

“She didn’t want us to know,” her mother said. “If she told us, we could have done something.”

In April, Lawson moved out of her mother’s house and into the mobile home in the Dorchester County portion of North Charleston.

Life was going well for Lawson at first. She had a steady job at Walmart. Her oldest son watched the other children as she worked. But Williams continued to pester her, sometimes demanding to speak to her while she was at work.

On her way to work the Saturday night before she died, Lawson dropped by her mother’s house. They chatted and hugged.

“If I knew that was the last time I’d see her,” Dawson said, “I would have kept her here.”

Three days later, early on June 18, Williams broke in to Lawson’s home. He was waiting for her when she returned from work around 7 that morning. He had a gun.

Her 14-year-old son started calling family members for help. Two of Lawson’s sisters showed up and tried to talk to Williams; that didn’t work. They called 911.

The four children in the home managed to get out as Williams pinned Lawson to the floor and held a gun to her head.

When officers tried to burst in, Williams shot her, then himself.

By the time Dawson arrived, it was too late to say good-bye.

A helping hand

The children from ages 1 to 16 were dubbed the “Kiya 7” after their mother.

For their grandmother, caring for a host of children wasn’t a daunting task at first.

When she was young, Dawson had 15 siblings.

She later gave birth to five children of her own.

This also wasn’t the first time she had unexpectedly become a parent. Years ago, a night of baby-sitting a girl from her neighborhood turned into a lifetime when the child’s mother left to live in Virginia. Dawson adopted the girl and two others.

The eight children moved out before Dawson’s husband died in 2004, but some returned as they hit rough patches in their lives. They brought children with them.

Dawson hosted pajama parties for some of her 42 children. In her cramped home, they often slept on top of each other on the floor.

“Nieces, nephews, neighborhood children ... my house was always open to all of them,” she said. “We try to take care of all children.”

Soon after her daughter’s death, the community started paying her back.

She sometimes returned home and found toys or supplies on her doorstep.

Jamel Foster, a North Charleston police officer who attends Dawson’s church, organized two car washes that he said raised $3,400. He arranged a charity drive scheduled for Saturday that encourages people to donate toys, food and clothing to help Dawson’s grandchildren and other families.

Before her daughter’s death, Dawson had been working 25 hours a week as a caregiver for the elderly. But she soon found herself busy running her grandchildren to schools and doctor’s offices, forcing her to cut back her time to 10 hours a week.

In August, she had little money for mortgage or car payments.

“I’m not a person who lets the world consume me,” Dawson said. “We had food and love. Those are the main things.”

But Chakiena Evans, who heard of the family’s story, didn’t want Dawson to struggle. Dawson was engulfed in a situation “totally different” than anything Evans had handled, she said.

As an asset-building processor at the Human Services Commission, a nonprofit community action agency, Evans said Dawson was approved for up to $36,000 in mortgage help.

“She was very humble,” Evans said. “She wasn’t begging or needy. She was just willing to accept whatever help we could offer.”

Evans later referred Dawson to Families Helping Families, an effort of the Palmetto Project to provide warm clothing, food, toiletries and gifts to the needy during the holidays.

The agency relies on $25 to $50 sponsorships to fulfill a family’s Christmas wishes. But at the end of this week, as the deadline for sponsors neared, project coordinator McGrew said 199 families still needed help.

Dawson’s grandchildren were promised gifts. When McGrew asked her what she wanted, Dawson hesitated before answering.

“A Bible,” she said.

‘Our angel’

A shrine to her daughter was erected on a table in Dawson’s living room.

A photo shows the curly haired woman at her wedding. Another shows Lawson at her grandfather’s 90th birthday party. One shows her gazing at her firstborn child in a hospital bed.

The purple ribbon in the memorial developed a double meaning. Purple, Lawson’s favorite color, also symbolizes victims of domestic violence.

It reminds Dawson of her regrets in not stepping in to help her daughter sooner. It reminds Dawson of what she learned after her daughter died: South Carolina is the leading state for its rate of women slain by men.

“Those women need to leave those situations,” she said. “They can’t wait until they’re dead. They can’t leave their children behind.”

Dawson’s grandchildren have struggled.

She often finds them alone and crying. Some of them have acted up. They miss their mother’s famous macaroni and cheese and her pork-and-beans casserole with cornbread.

Dawson cleared her living room of antique furniture that she didn’t think was appropriate for small children. Now, her youngest grandchild runs across the floor and tosses around an old cellphone that Dawson lets him play with. She decided to rename the boy “Seven” after the number of her daughter’s children.

“He knows who his mom is,” Dawson said. “He’ll go up to her picture and give her a kiss.”

Dawson still has needs, like two more bedrooms to make her three-bedroom home more comfortable.

But she believes that even in death, Lawson has provided for her children so far.

Every night, a bird roosts in the same corner under the eaves over Dawson’s doorstep.

“We started calling her Kiya,” Dawson said. “That’s our angel.”

Every morning, around the time of day Lawson was slain, the bird flies away.

“But we know,” Dawson said, “she’ll be back.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.