Off the beaten track
New beginnings in an old school
Alysa and Jesse grew up in regular homes—in a regular neighbourhood. On tree-lined streets near High Park in Toronto. Traditional surroundings. They played on the same hockey team when they were both four years old. Ordinary.
Now Alysa Hawkins and Jesse Parker live with their three daughters in an 11,000 square foot former school in Milford which Alysa found on Kijiji. Last year they purchased the South Marysburgh school in Milford, along with eight acres, a couple of baseball diamonds and a tennis court.
The average home is about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. Alysa and Jesse’s home is five times greater. There is a blackboard in every room, a built-in public address system. And a boiler system that, at it’s most efficient and lightly tasked, cost the school board about $38,000 to heat the building each year.
It is not the couple’s first living space adventure.
In 2001 the couple purchased a sailboat. Neither had much experience. Just a single 30-hour training course under their belts.
Two days before terrorists slammed passenger aircraft into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, Jesse had sold his interest in a software firm and the couple set sail to explore the world.
“I have an over-developed sense of self-confidence,” admits Jesse.
The tragedy of 9/11 blocked passage through New York City. They were stuck on the Hudson River for weeks. Eventually Alysa and Jesse made it to the Atlantic and headed south. They sailed for a year. Living in close quarters. The inexperienced sailors battled rough weather and treacherous seas, yet they survived.
Returning to Toronto, the couple bought a ramshackle house on Roncesvalles from the city. The building was in terrible condition. The backyard litter indicated it had been a popular injection site for addicts, yet it was in a good neighbourhood.
“The racoon crap was more than a foot deep in some rooms,” explains Alysa on their inspection of the property—a house that hadn’t been inhabited (by humans) for decades.
The couple restored the house, to the relief and appreciation of their neighbours. Over the next decade, they had three daughters. Alysa went back to school to study robotics.
But Jesse was getting restless living in the city. He was itching for new lifechallenge. He had spent summers and weekends at his grandparents farm. He was driven to give his children a more rural upbringing.
“Our backyard looked like a prison for kids,” says Jesse. “I wanted my kids to a have a zip line.”
The couple also sought to live a more sustainable and environmentally sensitive way than was available in their Toronto neighbourhood.
So they found a property with some acreage near Wellington. Prince Edward County was a conveniently located between family in Ottawa and Toronto. It was a nice house. But ordinary.
Then Alysa found the South Marysburgh school for sale in Milford.
Jesse’s sister, a real estate agent in the city, offered crystal clear advice.
“Do not buy that school,” she insisted.
She may as well have waved a red flag at a bull.
Days later Alysa and Jesse owned a school in Milford.
Alysa says Jesse is wired for such challenges. As children he and his brothers built a hot air balloon—pooling their allowances to buy yards and yards of fabric.
“It lifted off , high above High Park,” says Alysa. “The boys weren’t allowed to get in it. They built it just to see if they could.”
“Jesse has a lot of crazy ideas, but he has the smarts to pull it off. And the willingness to just do it,” she says.
It is not the same for Alysa. Despite growing up in the same leafy neighbourhood, her early years were tough. She was raised by her mom. Dad left them when she was seven.
“Neighbours left baskets of food at our doorstep,” she explained.
She learned to roll with the punches. She knew early in life that every day was unpredictable.
When the couple bought the school in Milford, her mother was dying. She felt she needed to stay close. The timing was awful.
“It was hard to leave,” says Alysa. “But she encouraged us to go.”
Her mother visited Milford often.
“She loved it here, even though it was far from Toronto,” says Alysa.
This past spring her mom passed away.
The family moved in on June 28, 2013— coinciding with the girls’ school year. The first challenge was to put a dent into the heating costs. Jesse had done his homework. He designed a new heating system, featuring a pellet-fired boiler circulating water under the floors throughout the school. But a boiler of this size would cost more than $25,000. He found one for much lower price in China. Ever the gamblers, they opted for the Chinese boiler and made arrangements to have it shipped to Milford. In the meantime, they began running the distribution network throughout the crawlspace under each classroom. They installed more than a mile of 3/4 inch pex tubing—wearing through five pairs of kneepads.
They installed truckloads of insulation.
“Everything in a 11,000 square foot building is a big job,” says Jesse.
When the boiler arrived, the instructions were in Mandarin. Jesse doesn’t read Mandarin. His training and experience is in electronics and software engineering. But he has boundless self-confidence. He had the manual translated and set out to make it work.
He had hoped the system would be up and pumping warm comfort by mid-September. By November it still wasn’t working. The kids did homework wearing mittens. Alysa made meals in a coat and hat.
“It was almost uninhabitable,” she recalls.
Then, on November 30, the boiler came to life. They had heat at last.
Jesse estimates heating costs last winter were about $2,000 for the third of the building they live in during the cold months—far less than the school board paid.
Over the winter, the couple converted two former classrooms into guest suites. Each is an interesting, well-designed, family-oriented suite—spacious, well appointed and a bit unexpected. Each room maintains a blackboard stretching across the expanse of one wall. This is not an ordinary B&B.
The suites have been busy all summer long, mostly attracting 20- and 30-somethings.
They plan on adding a third. They have the room for it.
The couple know the school had a history of serving as a community hub. It is something they wish to continue. The parade has always been marshalled in the school yard. It still does.
Many of their friends are musicians. So on the last Wednesday of each month, from July to November, they open their home—gymnasium and stage—for an evening of music. Billed as the Old School Concert Series, last week’s lineup included Rueben DeGroot Jenny Whiteley and Emily Fennell.
“It is a great feeling,” says Alysa.
On other nights it is not uncommon for a softball game to break out. Outfielders must be mindful, however, not to stumble over the chickens that roam freely on the former school yard.
Jesse would like to add a couple pigs to his small farm. And a milking cow. He isn’t sure how the municipality might view his minor agriculture operation. But in the meantime there is still plenty to do. The list is very long.
That includes raising three young daughters, Reya 10, Wini, eight and Ruby seven. The girls were happy with the move to Milford. They each got their own room.
“They were so stoked for the move, but now they all sleep in the same room,” said Jesse.
This week, the girls will pull on their backpacks and together with their mom, bike the six kilometres to school in Cherry Valley.
A year after moving to Milford they have begun to settle into a routine. Or what passes for routine in this unique life journey.
You can follow their progress or learn more about their story on Alysa’s blog: lettersfromthelunchroom.wordpress.com