Daryl and Roxann Gunnarson arrived in the city five years ago with a clear-cut vision. They are both people of faith, and they believe what they are working on in the city can help improve foster care not only in Hamilton, but for all of Butler County.
The Gunnarson’s showed off their project Friday morning. The couple owns the Father’s House, which is part of their non-profit New Oaks Community project.
Located on three acres on D Street in the Rossville Historic District, the property used to house the Butler County Children’s Home, an orphanage started in 1869 for orphans of the Civil War.
Daryl Gunnarson, who worked at Proctor and Gamble for 30 years, is eager to discuss what he and his wife have planned for the property, which includes a 25-room mansion built in 1850 by Hamilton industrialist E.J. Dyer and several outbuildings.
“This really started several years ago when Hamilton resident Tim MacDonald and his wife Doreen bought the Butler County Children’s Home,” Daryl Gunnarson said. “Their daughter was adopted, and they were aware of the challenges of the foster care system. Doreen would walk by the property on D Street and she felt like the Lord had spoken with her to develop it into a foster home community.”
After acquiring the property about five years ago from the MacDonalds (Doreen died in 2005 after a life-long battle with diabetes), the Gunnarsons did their legal due diligence with probate judges, children services officials, planning commission and neighbors in an attempt to revitalize the place that had been used as a treatment center for troubled youth since 1985.
“Tim moved away for a job and the project of restoring this place had stalled,” Daryl Gunnarson said. “My wife and I looked over this property shortly before Tim moved. We prayed about it and decided to take it over.”
With their strong religious convictions, the Gunnarsons dubbed the foster care project the New Oaks Community, Inc. from a Bible scripture — Isaiah 61. They turned New Oaks into a non-profit, and then faced some in Hamilton who rolled out the welcome mat and others that weren’t so sure the idea fit well in the historic Rossville District.
Residents sent more than 80 signatures to the planning commission opposing the project, with some stating at an open meeting that it didn’t conform with the original zoning use of the property.
“That has been a challenge, but we want to be a good neighbor, and we understand that people have concerns or preconceptions about what this property will be like when it is finished,” Daryl Gunnarson said.
The property is now zoned for five separate lots. Roxann Gunnarson leads the tour around the mansion (making sure to note where her communications command center will be) which will be turned into a series of living room areas, a kitchen, music and training rooms. Original pictures of the Dwyer family still hang on a wall.
“We found a pair of leather baby shoes that were stuck in a wall,” Roxann Gunnarson said. “We won’t throw anything like that away.”
Scriptures are scrolled on the walls inside as volunteers make no secret that this is a mission they see as a higher calling. The Gunnarsons see this as a campus for spiritual and emotional learning and healing and not just a place to throw kids and families away.
“We want this to serve the entire county and be a home…this is not an institution,” Daryl Gunnarson said, while glancing out of the prayer tower that offers a breathtaking view of the city.
The old Ruth Hospital is an example of that. Constructed in 1906, it was built to serve as a clinic for the orphanage and is now designed to provide three bedrooms, and two baths to a foster family. It now houses a woman and her kids. The mother had just aged out of foster care when she lost her eyesight and is now legally blind.
Plans to convert the old dorm building into more apartments and a missionary center are underway. A fitness area, wood workshop and rec center will also be housed there. More living space will be constructed in the 19th century Laundry Building.
The property has been paid for, according to the Gunnarsons, and with fundraisers and rent — each foster tenant will pay something to live on the premises — the property will be self-sufficient.
“The infrastructure is in place for this project to be totally self-sufficient,” Daryl Gunnarson said.
A fundraiser was scheduled at the Courtyard by Marriott Hamilton this weekend and was expected to raise more than $50,000. Last year’s event raised more than $40,000.
Longtime Hamilton resident Jane Devore feels that the project is a noble one and deserved the backing of the community.
I remember coming to Hamilton in 1948, visiting the home and admiring the couple who lived there,” Devore said. “They had to be a mother and father, house keepers and cooks for all those children, a happy place to be. I know one of them and she loves to tell about it.”
The Gunnarsons hope to have the Father’s House up and running by the summer of 2016, with a maximum of approximately 35 children on the property. Then, after some prayerful time to collect themselves, they may try to open the same type of foster care project in their native Montana.
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