Six siblings sit around the kitchen table in their Florida home, eating and chatting. For the oldest of the Rodriguez kids, it's downright tranquil. Samantha, 21, juggles a full schedule as a college freshman who works part-time. She's also raising her five younger siblings.
Samantha took on the role of full-time parent to her siblings, ages 8 to 16, after both of her parents, Lisa Smith and Alexander Rodriguez, passed away from cancer just four years apart. After the death of her parents, Samantha quickly assumed the role of sole caregiver for her siblings.
“My mother, when I was 15, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Then around nine months after she was diagnosed, that's when she passed away,” Samantha told InsideEdition.com. “When I was 17 years old, [my father] was also diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. … He went quicker.”
When her mom died, Samantha's grandmother helped out and moved in with them, and after her dad passed away, the 21-year-old took on most of the responsibility.
She’d take the kids to school and to all of their doctor appointments, and made sure they were doing alright, all while trying to stay strong herself.
“It was very hard for me to keep my strength in front of them,” Samantha said. “I never wanted to let them see the sadness in me, because I wanted to be strong for them. If they see me freaking out, I knew they were going to freak out. I had to be very strong.”
While her parents were sick, Samantha dipped in and out of high school, but she eventually made the decision to commit to school so she could set an example for her siblings. At 19, she graduated. Although she was a bit embarrassed to be the oldest person in her class, her siblings couldn’t have been more proud.
“I'm very inspired by her, because high school for me is hard enough and I think for many teens,” Milagros, 16, said. “It's so difficult to keep up with the assignments and everything … and so for Sam to be going to school, going to work, doing everything in the house … and still making time to hang out with us and do things that we want to … like it's very inspiring.”
Now enrolled at a local college and working part-time as a waitress, Samantha has no time for a social life, but said she doesn’t mind the sacrifice. For her, family is the most important thing.
Sometimes, though, she does struggle with the pressure of having to try to be everything for her siblings.
“As much as I have to be Mom and Dad, I also have to be big sister,” Samantha said. “It's a very hard dynamic to know how to juggle all three roles. I think most times, I have to be their parent, but I also like to be their big sister and give them big sister advice, because I want them to feel open with me and be able to talk to me about anything.”
Samantha said it can be especially hard sometimes for 13-year-old Michael, or "Mikey," who is the only boy of the bunch. She tries to take him out to do things he enjoys, but said she is also glad her boyfriend of three years can step in on occasion to help.
“I think since we've been together for so long now, and he's spent so much time around the kids, that they have a very good relationship with each other,” Samantha said. “They listen to him a lot and they take his advice seriously."
While the older children, Milagros and Brenda, 15, remember a lot about their parents, the younger kids – Mikey, 8-year-old Destiny and 9-year-old Bella– have less memories of their mother and father.
“I was six when my mom passed away, so I have like memory but very short memory of her,” Mikey said. “I know she was an amazing mother to us, and I do see where Sam gets her strength from doing all of this.
“My dad, he was always there to bond with me because even when he was alive, I was still the only boy in the house, so he was always there to bond with me and it was just so much love,” Mikey added.
Destiny was only 1 year old when her mother passed.
“I have an idea that she doesn't remember my mother at all, which is very hard for us to accept, especially how amazing my mother was and how much she loved us so much. ... It's hard,” Samantha said.
But the family makes sure to keep the memory of their parents alive. Photographs of their parents fill the walls in their living room. In one section, an altar to honor them sits atop a glass table. There sits their parents' ashes encased in two engraved, silver urns. Rosaries hang from each one.
On holidays and birthdays, the kids always honor their parents, sometimes releasing balloons or writing them notes. They like to focus on happy times. For them, life isn’t gloomy.
“A lot of people think we're always sad all the time and they like to gravitate toward the sadness. … Although we did lose a lot and during those times we were very sad and very impacted by those situations, it brought us together, stronger and better,” Milagros said.
“I feel like a whole bunch of love and gratitude came from those experiences. ... Obviously there's still times where we cry about stuff, we remember feelings that we used to have with our parents or memories," she continued. "But for the most part we're very happy kids and we do most things that kids do.”
Most immediately, the family hopes to move into a space that can better accommodate their size. In their current living situation, the teen girls share a room and so do Mikey and Samantha, while the two younger children rotate who they share a bed with.
They have taken to GoFundMe to help them reach their goal.
Samantha hopes to adopt her siblings eventually, but isn't in any rush. She doesn't need a piece of paper to tell her what she and her siblings already know.
“We’re a strong family,” Destiny said.
“We're all so connected between love and strength," he said. "We all have each other's back."