On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the Rodriguez household in Orlando, Florida, was as busy and chaotic as ever.
Destiny, 7, and Bella, 9, did homework on the family computer while Michael, 12, played the radio and set the dining room table. Meanwhile, Brenda, 14, and Milagros, 16, watched TV and made their way to the kitchen to help prepare shrimp scampi with 20-year-old Samantha.
While Samantha is the oldest of the six Rodriguez siblings, she “didn’t think twice” about taking on two other roles: mom and dad.
Their mother, Lisa Smith, was the first to die — of cervical cancer, in June 2013. She was 35.
Three years later, their father, Alexander Rodriguez, died at 44 from lymphoma.
After realizing that “no one in our family could take us all in,” Samantha tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, “I decided that I had to do everything I possibly could to help these kids.”
Looking at her siblings as they run around their house, she says, “There was no way that I was going to let us be split up.”
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Today, Samantha does everything from packing school lunches to taking her siblings to and from school to scheduling doctor’s visits and making sure homework gets done.
She has support: Last December, the local sheriff’s office stepped in to help with Christmas, and in April anonymous donors pooled together to get Samantha a car. A fundraiser set up on the family’s behalf has so far raised more than $38,000 from church friends, neighbors and strangers around the world.
“I am so blown away by the help we’ve received,” says Samantha, who works nights as a waitress at a nearby restaurant to help pay the bills. “It’s a reminder that everything will be okay.”
It didn’t always feel that way. Before their parents — who fell in love as teenagers — died, the family struggled to make ends meet and pay rent. Frequently forced to move, the Rodriguez children never knew stability.
Smith, their mom, worked as a cleaning lady but Alexander, who was an alcoholic, was in and out of the picture. After Smith’s illness in July 2012, their dad “did a whole 180” and stepped up to help.
“It was a dark time,” Samantha says. “She just became sicker and sicker.”
The family, living in Miami, moved to Georgia and tried to start again after Smith’s death in 2013. But Alexander got sick two year later, in November 2015, and died six months after that.
The six Rodriguez children once again moved, to Orlando, where a friend offered Samantha a serving job.
Because she was just 17 when they became orphans, grandmother Lourdes Navarro, 76, became the siblings’ legal guardians. Samantha is in the process of taking over legal guardianship from Navarro, whose arthritis limits how much she can help.
“They deserve everything. I look at these kids, and I know it will all be alright,” says Samantha, who also gets endless help from her boyfriend of two years, Jesus Santana.
She says she is “saving all of my money” to move the family to a bigger house and pay for college, for her siblings and herself, and maybe even visit Disney World, just a few minutes from their home.
The effort and time she gives her younger siblings doesn’t go unnoticed.
“I don’t know where we would be without Sam,” says Michael, “but I know it wouldn’t be good.”
Adds Milagros: “Samantha wanted us to stay together as a family. It means so much to us.”
They also make sure to keep their parents’ memories alive every single day — and make them proud.
“Every night we sit down together and say grace,” says Samantha. “We’ve come a long way, and we have a lot to be thankful for.”