For the next two or three years, the seven members of the Elhajj family will live in an RV and travel around the country, engaging in hands-on learning and supporting important causes.
Ali and Jennifer Elhajj felt God was calling them to serve; the next step was to figure out exactly what that meant for them and their five children. This week, the Winter Garden family of seven — with children ranging in age from 3 to 13 — expects to head out on an adventure that will take them all over the country and allow them to engage in causes that are important to them.
“Once we, as a family, understood this is what we were supposed to do, it became a matter of asking the question: How can we do this?” Ali said. “Then it was a matter of answering that question, and the myriad others that followed, to make it possible.”
Jennifer admits this major change is taking her way out of her comfort zone, but she is passionate about seeing how the future unfolds and is anxious to begin the journey.
They rented out their 4,000-square-foot, six-bedroom home and moved into a 400-square-foot motor home last month.
“We’ve always been adventurous but never imagined that would involve moving our family of seven into a space less than half the size of our driveway,” Jennifer said.
Everyone decided what was important to them, and the sentimental keepsakes and pieces of furniture were packed into a storage unit. A limited amount of clothing and toys were set aside for the motor coach. The Elhajjs held a garage sale to purge household items and other material possessions.
“I remember standing there at the end of the day and thinking, ‘Man, we got rid of so much stuff,’” Jennifer said. “Then I walked in the house, looked around and immediately realized, ‘Man, we’ve got so much stuff to get rid of!’”
A huge estate sale was held for the remainder, and a few nice pieces of furniture that didn’t sell were given away to people in need.
“We gave up a significant amount of ‘stuff,’ but it was just stuff anyway,” Ali said.
No space goes unused in their new home.
The winter clothes are stored in suitcases in the “basement” storage compartments. Two hanging shoe organizers hold shoes and bathroom toiletry items. Jennifer’s large jewelry box was condensed into a hanging jewelry bag she shares with her oldest daughter.
Each child was given one box for the storage unit and a small bin to take with them on the road. Because the total storage space for clothing for seven people is about one-third the space Jennifer used to have just for herself, they had to get both creative and realistic.
Everyone gets three pairs of shoes: flip-flops, sneakers and dress shoes. The children have one large drawer each for daytime clothes and a smaller one for all other clothing; the parents get the closet shelves.
Underneath the dinette are two slide-out drawers that hold toys and board games.
“Living in an almost 4,000-square-foot home, we took it for granted that every routine activity had a defined space and there was plenty of privacy afforded by six bedrooms, even for guests,” Jennifer said. “In an RV, spaces are combined just as they are in smaller homes the world over.
“Our main living area also serves as our kitchen, dining room, homeschool room and bedroom for all five kids; the couches and dinette convert into beds,” she said. “Ali even recently discovered that while parked, he can position the steering wheel in just such a way as to make it a decent desk for his laptop.”
The children can stream music and movies while they’re on the road, and they will have their video games. An onboard generator and an inverter will keep everything charged.
Taking up the most space in the RV are the homeschool supplies and Ali’s photography equipment.
Jennifer has always homeschooled the children and led the Winter Garden Homeschoolers group. She will continue the children’s education, but with the added benefit of being able to visit the country’s national parks and landmarks.
“From a homeschooling perspective, I’m most excited about visiting Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and other cities vitally important to our nation’s founding and development,” Jennifer said.
“We’re also not just confined to the motor home; we have the outdoors just outside our door,” Ali said. “We can go for walks, sit at the picnic table, go swimming or ride our bikes whenever we want.”
With their walkie-talkies, the children can explore the campgrounds’ play areas.
There will be plenty of hiking, too, as all of the Elhajjs enjoy being out in nature.
Ali’s passion is landscape photography; he won the 2015 People’s Choice Award for Best of Downtown Orlando’s photo contest, and his work is displayed at the SoBo Art Center in downtown Winter Garden.
His photography will serve as a source of income for the family, as well. He can teach workshops and online webinars and sell his photos and wants to work on VirtualPhotoWalks projects.
“Basically, VPW works with photographers from around the world who go out into the field with a phone on top of their camera to stream back video to children in hospitals, veterans and the disabled,” Ali said. “The idea is to ‘take’ those who can’t go with you.”
In addition, he works full-time as a technical project manager at a fully virtual health education startup and can work from anywhere.
DOING GOD’S WORK
Before their second child was born, Jennifer was a motivational speaker in high schools, encouraging tens of thousands of students to make the most of whatever stage of life they were in. She also hosted a weekly radio show that highlighted ministries making a positive impact in their communities
“I’ve always wanted to combine those two elements and plan to speak in churches as we go, encouraging women to live their faith fearlessly and in a tangible way that brings positive change to their homes and communities. In lieu of charging a fee, I’m going to ask if a collection could be taken to go towards two causes: the fight against human trafficking and providing sustainable sources of clean water to areas of the world that need it.”
Serving others comes natural for both Jennifer and Ali.
“I’ve always thought of life as more than just work and have always wanted to serve others as well,” he said. “All in all, I look at this as a coming together of all we were made to do. I’m looking forward to doing it now rather than waiting for an unknown time in the future.”
Jennifer admits her husband was more eager than she was at first. But she has come around, she said.
“It was really the combination of prayer, circumstances, a Bible study and our church family that brought me to the realization that this was a calling and there was a purpose behind it,” she said.
The Elhajj children — Ethan, 13; Grace, 11; Jonah, 8; Nabeel, 5: and Layla, 3 — have been exposed to faith and giving all their lives, their parents said. The family regularly attends both Mosaic Church and First Baptist Church of Winter Garden.
“The kids have always known what Mommy and Daddy were doing and understood why it was important,” Ali said. “Now that they’re a bit older, especially Ethan and Grace, we’re looking forward to them engaging more and being a part of everything we do.”
Ali and Jennifer led a non-profit for several years that worked with Israeli and Palestinian Christians to deliver Christmas gifts to orphans, children with special needs and children suffering from post-traumatic stress in Israel and the West Bank.
While their plan isn’t completely mapped out, they do know they’re going to start in Key West and travel through all 50 states, ending up in Alaska. The couple expects to be on the road for two or three years, but they know they can always return to Winter Garden because they didn’t sell their house.
“Having lived in many different places throughout our marriage, all of which we enjoyed in different ways, we can both wholeheartedly say Winter Garden is the one and only place where we have felt completely comfortable and at home,” Jennifer said. “Wherever our lives take us, we’d love for this to remain home base for us and our children.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].