MODESTO — When Pennie and Rodney Kreifels adopted three young boys some 13 years ago, Pennie established clear ground rules from the onset.
"She said the box could be big," said Jesse Kreifels, the eldest. "Or, if you're getting in trouble or have bad grades, the box gets smaller and you won't be doing anything."
Pennie's box of rules, restrictions and choices resembled Christmas wrapping compared with what they had known up to that point in life. Consequently, they've thrived as a family built upon unconditional love, support, structure and expectations.
In December, 24-year-old Jesse received his bachelor's degree in communications from California State University, Fresno. He works for Sprint but plans to go into the fire service.
Chris, 20, graduated from Downey High, attended Fresno State for a year and now works in Modesto.
John, 18, starred on Downey High's football team and has accepted a scholarship to Eastern Washington University, just south of Spokane, Wash.
Boxes? Jesse, Chris and John certainly understand them. They had lived on the streets of West Sacramento, born to a mother hooked on drugs and each to a different dad they never knew. At times, the boys found shelter by huddling inside the nearest available cardboard box.
An occasional rented room for a night here and there? Now that was living or so they thought because they didn't know any different.
"Motel row," said Chris, who remembers one simply as "The Castle."
"It had a bed and a shower," he said. "It was a castle."
Their mom and uncle dealt drugs, using Jesse and Chris as decoys when transporting them.
"I sat on bricks of stuff," Chris said. "They said, 'Just sit on this and act like a kid.' "
Then came the drug bust that sent their mother and uncle to jail and the boys into foster care.
"The first place we went ," Jesse began, "You know, I never complained about anything I got. But sometimes they'd feed us the nastiest stuff. I cried."
About 9 years old at the time, Jesse had been taking care of his younger brothers most of their lives. He would steal to feed them, usually candy bars.
"You can't just steal a chicken," John reasoned.
Jesse's brothers looked to him, not the foster parents du jour, for permission, guidance, you name it.
"I wasn't being a child. I was being a parent," he said.
So the social workers decided to split them up. They stayed in foster homes for more than a year.
Finding parents willing to adopt all three boys together seemed unlikely. Jesse knew this, but was adamant about being with Chris and John.
"They (social workers) said the odds were better if I was by myself, but I wanted to live with them," Jesse said.
To make matters worse, their mother never enrolled them in school or preschool. Jesse didn't see the inside of classroom until he was 11, in fifth grade. That he read at a third-grade level was amazing because he had taught himself to read. By the time he finished sixth grade, he read at that grade level.
Rodney and Pennie Kreifels, who had no children, wanted to adopt. They were advised to attend a picnic where they could chat with any number of adoptable children.
"It was uncomfortable," said Rodney, who works for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. "They (the kids) knew why they were there."
Prospective parents were instructed to spend a few minutes with a child, then go on to the next.
"Not to hog them," Rodney said. "But nobody else wanted to hang out with three boys. They kept coming back to us. We knew they came as a package."
No problem. He and Pennie wanted to adopt older children, not toddlers. Soon, brothers born with different last names shared the same one: Kreifels.
Pennie immediately noticed how Jesse acted as a parent to Chris and John. She also knew the family's success depended on how she navigated the transition.
"We knew we had to win over Jesse," she said. "Sometimes, we'd have to tell him, 'Jesse, that's not your job.' He (soon) reverted back to the child he'd never gotten to be."
During their first few months in Modesto, Jesse would tell the others their birth mom would soon come to get them.
"But after six months, I don't think he thought any more about it," Pennie said.
One day, he called her "mom" for the first time. He was now their son.
The younger two adjusted more easily.
"I was the problem child," Jesse said.
"You could see they were really going to be great kids, but they needed some firm direction," said Doug Fraser, then principal at Enslen Elementary School. "And boy, did they get it. Jesse was very nontrusting. That would be the most important piece. He didn't have any trust in anybody. The Kreifels and the school staff recognized it. It became a project to help make them a success."
Pennie went to work at the school as an aide and to coach Jesse through his flare-ups.
The family rules applied to all three boys. They all loved sports, but academics had to be their top priority.
"We don't settle for a 2.0 GPA," Pennie said, who now works in the district's accounting office. "We're higher than Modesto City Schools. We had to be. We're flexible, but if you pull a D, you're on the bench. House rule."
When Jesse sat out the last football game of his sophomore season because of grades, his brothers noticed. It never happened again. He became one of three 1,000-yard rushers in the same Downey High backfield in 2007, along with Cody Ball and Joe Byous.
Chris played baseball and wrestled at Downey.
From the moment they began school together, John and Aaron Zwahlen became fast friends. Even so, John mentioned little about his early days, living on the streets, his mother's addiction.
"What always inspired me is that he has every excuse not to try, but he never made that excuse," said Zwahlen, who is headed to play quarterback at the University of Hawaii. "He's excelled at everything he does. He's deserving, how he can come from so low and use it as a strength."
"The other kids, they didn't have a clue what we've been through," John said. "They'll say, 'You're adopted?' My last name used to be Salazar. People still don't believe it."
During a ceremony earlier this month at Downey High, John signed his letter of intent to Eastern Washington, where he expects to play strong safety. Downey coach Jeremy Plaa invited the school's five signees John, Zwahlen, Juan Vaa-Ayala (Northwest Oklahoma State), Herman Harris (Chadron State) and Austin Holt (Menlo) to each say a few words.
"I broke down," John said. "I talked about how I love my mom and dad (Pennie and Rodney) because they were always there for me. They made me what I am today. My birth mom's in prison, and my birth mom and dad didn't do anything for me. They (Pennie and Rodney) are my heroes."
Consider that moment a culmination of love, support and structure. It came shortly after Fraser received a most precious gift in the mail.
"I got a graduation notice from him from Fresno State," Fraser said.
Indeed, the Kreifels boys' box is very big, just as Pennie told them it could be.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.