FORT MYERS - When Audrey, Willow and Kairi, then ages 2, 3 and 4, first arrived last year at a house east of Fort Myers, they were very thin and quiet, had sores on their bodies and they lacked the developmental skills that most children have at their ages, their aunt recalled Saturday.
But in a sign of how far the three siblings have come since they were rescued from a house of squalor and neglect in Avon Park, on Saturday they played and ate just like any other children.
"When I saw the horrific conditions they were in, I had no choice but to take them," said their aunt, Amy Jackson.
The gathering at the home of Amy Jackson and her husband, Roy, was a celebration of the completion of adoptions for the three girls, now ages 3, 4 and 5. The Jacksons adopted Audrey and Kairi, while another couple adopted Willow.
Although the Jacksons intended to adopt all three, they came to believe Willow needed more individualized attention she would get as part of a household with only one child, Amy Jackson said.
Amy Jackson recalled that when the three girls arrived they were very shy and that they "would eat any food that wasn't nailed down."
That wasn't surprising since records indicate their mother, Sandra Michelle Jackson, 25, and her boyfriend, Kyle Lee Rupert, 22, left them in a bedroom most of the day and gave them little food. Records said the three girls were malnourished.
They were only removed from the house after emergency medical technicians found Milo Rupert, 10-months old, dead. An autopsy showed that Milo died of starvation. As a result, Michelle Jackson and Rupert were charged with four counts of child neglect and one count of aggravated manslaughter. Their cases are pending in Highlands County Circuit Court.
Before the death of Milo, Amy Jackson said she had only met the children three times and that while the children appeared dirty, she did not know the extent of the neglect. It was only after Milo died that she become aware of the extent of the neglect, she said.
"They're a lot better off than they were before," said Margaret Jackson, the great-grandmother of the children. Margaret Jackson, who lives in Avon Park and attended the adoption party, said her granddaugher, Sandra Jackson, never brought the children to visit her and she had no idea of the condition of the house.
After Milo died, she said, she went over and "I walked in and then I walked right back out," she said, adding that she was appalled at the stench, the filth and the thousands of cockroaches.
But on Saturday the children were in an immaculate house with plenty of food. Appearing to be normal weight, Kairi, Audrey and Willow played with balloons, ate and talked with people, almost as though they had never experienced neglect.
For Jeffrey and Kelly, who did not want their last names used, the opportunity to adopt Willow was a dream come true, Jeffrey said. He said it came about when a mutual friend of the Jacksons and them made them aware of the situation.
"When we first saw her, we fell in love with her," he said.
Jeffrey and Kelly tried without success for years to have a child, Jeffrey said. When Kelly finally did get pregnant not too long before they met Willow, it ended in a miscarriage.
He said he feels that adopting Willow was God's plan all along. "God knows the timing better than we do."
But getting Willow to where she is now has been a task, he said. She couldn't talk, she wasn't potty trained and she always seemed desperate for food.
The adoption involved a long check into him and his wife, and he accepted that.
"No one wants these kids to go through another bad situation," he said.
Although Willow doesn't live with the Jacksons, he said, they arrange time for the three children to spend together.
The focus at the Jackson house Saturday was one of looking forward rather than backward.
"I hope these children are young enough that they don't remember what happened to them," said one woman at the adoption party who did not want her name used. "I think life started over for them when they got here."