Transformation of fire-damaged house will transform lives.

August 16, 2022

Wesley Vanderwilk stands in front of the fire-damaged house being renovated into housing to help men struggling with substance abuse. Vanderwilk, who is spearheading the project, was reluctant to have his photo taken, stating, “This is not about me.”

Transformation of fire-damaged house will transform lives.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — A historic home ravaged by fire earlier this summer is being transformed into much-needed housing for men struggling with drugs and alcohol.

The over 100-year-old house at 301 S. State St. served as a funeral home many years ago. 

“This house — once completed — will be used to assist men who are struggling with substance abuse,” said local business owner Wesley Vanderwilk who is spearheading the Elevate Oceana project.

Elevate Oceana is a “dry” Christian-based ministry housing program that will help “guys who are struggling specifically with drugs and alcohol,” said Vanderwilk. “There are places for women, but if you’re a man and you’re struggling, you’re kind of set back out on the streets.

Elevate Oceana is directed by a board of local businesspeople and community members and is in the process of becoming a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. The Elevate Oceana Board just launched a few months ago.

Bill Ryder, who is the Oceana County Jail chaplain through Forgotten Man Ministries, serves as board secretary.

“One of the guys on our board is a recovered alcoholic — seven years dry. He was very clear about the hard part of getting off alcohol. He burned bridges with everybody who didn’t drink. And when he stopped drinking, everybody who he drank with didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. So, he was on an island — all by himself.”

That guy is Scott Butcher — president of the board — who came up with the idea to start the program, he said. “It was Scott’s vision.”

Other board members are Vice President Gary Nienhuis, Paul Hefner and Sam Stitt. Vanderwilk serves as treasurer.

Elevate Oceana is modeled around the Building Men for Life program based in Holland, Michigan that has existed for about 10 years. “They currently have 96 guys under a roof, and the waiting list is around 50.

“It was started by a guy who has a sixth grade education and multiple felonies. He was on probation when he started it, and he wasn’t allowed to even touch the money.”

The Holland program charges $600 a month for the rooms, and $100 of the rent that the men pay each month is put aside into a savings account for when the time comes for them to branch out on their own.

Eventually, a house next door will also be used for the Oceana project, but right now, it’s being rented by a local family. “Once they want to leave, that will open up.”

Each building will house four men and one house manager.

“When you get out of jail, you have no money, no car and no job. Which one do you get first? You can’t get the money without a job; and you can’t get the job without a car; and you can’t get the car without money.”

The program will help them find jobs and provide rides to work as they begin rebuilding their lives.

Before the fire, the enormous house was a “drug house,” said Vanderwilk. Tenants had marijuana growing inside.

“The fire started from a guy trying to cook meth,” said Vanderwilk. “The guy doing drugs caused the fire that gets us the house that we’re going to use to help the guys doing drugs.”***

The severely fire-damaged home will require about $150,000 in renovations. “Until we’re 501 (c)(3), we really can’t ask for donations.” In the meantime, Vanderwilk is paying for the project out of his own pocket.

– Contributed photo

The once-three-story-home with gorgeous woodwork and stained glass windows will likely become a two-story house because fire leveled the top floor. 

Ted Ferwerda, who owns Wave Club in Silver Lake, closed his business for a day this summer to allow his employees who are Hart High School students to volunteer their time to work on gutting the house, said Vanderwilk, who owns Whippy Dip in Silver Lake. The students who volunteered are David Knobel, Zach Bitely, Ryan Hasty and Logan Claeys. 

“The goal is to have it dry — have a roof on it — by winter. Then we could start working on the inside. Hopefully, by next spring it could be completed.”

As of last week, eight trailer loads of junk had been removed from the house.

In addition to the help of board members and local business owners, Vanderwilk said he has received key support from Hart city officials.

Nicole Steel (Kleiner) has been very helpful. She knew what we wanted to do — she knew about Elevate Oceana.” Steel Kleiner, who is the city’s TIFA (Tax Increment Financing Authority) administrator and HEART (Hart Economic and Redevelopment Team) director, initiated the sale of the house.

“This is about giving a community for the guys who can say, ‘Hey, I can be dry again and I can have people around me and I can have friends and activities. I can start trying to rebuild the bridges of the people around me that I burned along the way.”

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Hart Police Chief Juan Salazar said there was no drug activity involved in the cause of the fire. “Nowhere in the investigation led us to believe that he was cooking any type of drug,” said Chief Salazar. The tenant was trying to mimic a Youtube video to create fishing lures by melting glass material in an aluminum pot, said the chief. “He carried it out to the porch, and dropped it because it was too hot,” igniting the fire. A report was submitted to the Oceana County Prosecutor’s Office for arson, but it was denied. The report claimed there was negligence but not malicious intent, he said.

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