30 Years: An Interview With Jay and Lois

by Drew Penfield

David’s House Ministries has been faithfully providing care for adults with developmental disabilities since 1987. In lieu of the ministry’s 30th anniversary and upcoming Celebration of 30 Years, I met with co-founders Jay and Lois DeBoer to hear firsthand about how things began.

The history of David’s House is something that’s never been formally documented. It would be wonderful if we could start from the beginning. What’s your story?

Our son, David, was born on November 23, 1956. He was born prematurely and later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Our family doctor told us that we should place David in a care facility since he was going to require a lot of care and we had other children to raise. In his mind, he thought David could be better taken care of in a place that was designated for it. So, Lois and I began searching for a home for David.

We first went to Coldwater, MI, to tour a facility. It was a cold, bleak old building where residents could be found sitting on the floor, rocking themselves back and forth—staff members making their rounds merely to make sure each person was still alive. We knew that the care David would receive would be very insufficient. This was not an option for us.

Nonetheless, we continued looking. The second facility Lois and I visited was at Fort Custer in Battle Creek. Again, after touring the facility, we were not at all convinced that this was a place where we would leave our son. It was then that we made the decision to keep David at home with our other four children. The Lord graciously supplied volunteers from our church to come alongside our family and help provide care for David in our home until he was 30.

It was tradition for us to meet with two of our best friends, Jim and Sue Holwerda, each Sunday evening. Jim was pastoring in Grand Ledge and I was pastoring in Lansing. We’d get together at Bill Knapp’s every Sunday night for a hot fudge sundae and a talk about how the day went.

On one of those evenings, Jim asked me, ‘What are you going to do with David in the future?’

I told him we had been looking at some adult foster care homes and facilities. All the places we knew of either weren’t equipped to handle someone who used a wheelchair, had too long of a waiting list or were too far away. We hadn’t thought about anything beyond hoping for a Christian home—somewhere, someday.

Jim knew that we needed to start something now.

We realized that unless we took action, David and others like him would not receive the quality care they needed. Through Jim’s prompting, the idea of a home—David’s House—was created. We then began looking for property in Grand Ledge after proposing the idea and vision of David’s House to our children to ensure that we had their support.

We formed a board with Jim to get things underway. We never wanted David’s House to be a “mom and pop” facility, and the development of a board was foundational in creating longevity and structure to sustain our vision beyond our time here.

Around the same time, a care facility in Michigan was being shut down. Terrible stories began surfacing. Residents were being moved into small adult foster care homes, but the state didn’t have the resources to properly care for them. As a result, surrounding communities were apprehensive about new homes moving into their neighborhoods. When Grand Ledge community members caught wind of us wanting to build a home for individuals with special needs, they expressed many fears and concerns. We knew we couldn’t continue in Grand Ledge with the opposition we were facing and needed to find another location to build David’s House.

A few years later, Jim was serving as Director of Honey Creek Christian Homes (now Wedgwood Christian Services) in Grand Rapids. Through some of the contacts and relationships he had made there, the Lord led us to Dan Vos. Dan, owner of Dan Vos Construction, invited us out to Wyoming, MI for a tour of some property he owned. No one had shown much interest in it for several years. But Dan and his wife, Gert, graciously offered to donate the property to us.

A dream began to develop for us with the offering of the property—a dream that had nearly died in Grand Ledge. When our first major gifts came in from Bolthouse Farms and Glen and Merle Schaap, things really started moving. Dave Gage, who worked at Honey Creek with Jim at the time began to bring in donations and gifts in-kind.

We opened House 1 and moved ten residents in, including David, on June 29, 1987. Lois and I moved to Grand Rapids soon after. Having operated under Honey Creek’s umbrella until House 1 was fully established, we became an independent ministry in 1990.

David’s House recently celebrated its 30th anniversary in June. The differences between 1987 and 2017 are obvious—we have four homes now and our workforce has increased tenfold. When David’s House first opened, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Finding residents that were a good fit. We moved in one or two residents and later found out that they had behavioral challenges. For the safety and well-being of the staff and other residents, we couldn’t let them stay. But this wasn’t easy for us. From the beginning, we’ve been committed to caring for people for as long as they desire to live at David’s House.

Staffing was another difficulty. We were hard-pressed to find people who truly cared about the welfare of our residents and weren’t doing it merely for a paycheck. But the outstanding thing that we want to keep communicating is the pre-arranging that God did—putting the right people in the right place. Whenever we were really pushed, someone would walk through the door. This can be said about the financial support we’ve needed as well.

One of the many things that makes David’s House special is the team that works here. Today, we have over 70 staff members representing three generations and a variety of backgrounds. In the earlier years, what did the staff at David’s House look like?

We had four staff members—two young married couples—taking care of House 1 residents. The same for House 2, which opened in 1994. We used a “house parent” model of staffing. Couples would live in the homes and take care of the residents full-time. We began seeing a lot of burnout with this model, however. It put a lot of stress on a new marriage, especially on those who were raising kids. We moved away from the house parent model in 2005 and began working toward hiring direct care staff to work in shifts.

Supported employment for the residents is hard to find, even today. But it seems like there are lots of great opportunities for the residents to take part in. What opportunities were available for residents in 1987?

We wanted our residents to be active and engaged with the surrounding community. For this reason, we required all incoming residents to be involved in some sort of program during the day. Residents were usually out the door around 8 am and returned later in the afternoon.

How does your faith affect how you have approached and handled adult foster care?

Although we left the pastorate to pursue developing David’s House, we were convicted to never step away from ministry. There weren’t many care homes 30 years ago that provided quality care rooted in Christian conviction. We fundamentally believe that every person on this earth is created in God’s image. That doesn’t exclude people with disabilities. The care we provide is drawn from and compelled by this worldview as we work to meet the needs of each resident wholly—physically, socially and spiritually.

We’ve grown tremendously throughout the past 30 years—now operating four homes with another six on the way. How does it feel now when you drive up Banner Drive to David’s House?

Jay: (tears in his eyes) I just have to say, ‘Thank you’.

Lois: We’re so grateful to the Lord for all he’s done. None of this would have happened without him.