During Beth Laitkep’s final days in a Virginia hospital, she made her good friend Stephanie Culley promise her one thing: to make sure her daughters always have bows in their hair.
Laitkep, a single mother of six, had breast cancer and died on May 19 at the age of 39. Culley, Laitkep’s close friend since high school, agreed to raise her three sons and three daughters after she passed away.
“And I always, always, put a bow in the girls’ hair,” Culley, 39, tells PEOPLE. “For Beth.”
Will, 15, Selena, 14, Jaxson, 11, Dallas, 10, Lily, 5, and Ace, 1, joined Culley, her husband Donnie and their three children in their Alton, Virginia, home in April after Laitkep received news that her breast cancer had spread to her spine and brain.
Laitkep knew she didn’t have much time left and she wanted her kids to grow up with someone she trusted.
“She said to me, ‘If a miracle doesn’t happen and I don’t make it, can you take my children as your own,’ ” says Culley. “And I immediately said yes.”
Laitkep was diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant with Ace in 2015. She had an emergency C-section so that she could begin chemotherapy treatments.
As her condition worsened, the father of her children abandoned the family – leaving Laitkep to rely on friends like Culley for support.
“We grew very, very close during that time and Beth’s children became best friends with mine,” Culley says of her kids Cole, 10, Hayden, 6, and Calen, 2. “We became a family while Beth was still alive and we love them like our own, so it made sense for me to take the kids in when she died.”
The kids continued to visit their mom in the hospital for a month after they moved in with Culley. When Laitkep died, Culley says they were “heartbroken,” but had new parents and siblings to rely on for support.
Culley’s family of five soon became a family of 11.
“Beth’s last words to me were, ‘Tell my babies I love them. And you know I love you too, Stephanie,’ ” says Culley.
The transition for the children after Laitkep’s death has been “smooth,” and the kids are seeing a grief counselor.
Donnie, a construction worker in Alton, built their family home 10 years ago with multiple bedrooms – enough to house everyone.
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“There was some higher power working here, everything just sort of fell into place – like us having a big enough house for nine kids,” says Culley. “It had to be someone up above looking out for us, protecting those kids and making sure they had a place when Beth died.”
Adoption paperwork is currently being processed, and Stephanie and Donnie have a final court date on June 19 to finalize the case.
“Our kids already consider themselves true brothers and sisters,” says Culley. “If they’re sad, they cry to us and we cry with them. They let their feelings out and we are all here to support them.”