Still pitching in [UPDATED]Published 4:44am Tuesday, September 3, 2013 Updated 7:56pm Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Willy and JoAnn Gundersen wanted to be closer to their children and grandchildren, so in January they decided to move next door to both their son Steve and their daughter Christine.
The Gundersen’s new house, located on Highway 27, was set in the middle of a dense pack of trees. In order to renovate the house as planned, the trees needed to come down.
Willy Gundersen rented an excavator and set to removing the trees. He would spend long hours in that excavator each day, sometimes as many as eight in a row. On a normal day, Willy would be working in the excavator for four hours. It was hard work, much of it done during hot summer days.
Willy also had to dig up three feet of topsoil around the property. He would scoop the soil with the excavator and place it into one of four or five piles scattered around the yard. After months of work, Willy cleared the trees and the soil, which meant the work on the house could begin.
Willy Gundersen is paralyzed from the waist down.
Twelve years ago, Willy Gundersen fell off his sister’s roof while helping her with a renovation project. The accident left him in a wheelchair, but it did not change his attitude.
“I wanted to do it,” Willy Gundersen said of working the excavator, which is handicap-accessible and operated by hand. “I like to work, I’m just limited in what I can do.”
Those limitations are the reason Willy and JoAnn Gundersen have moved next door to two of their children. Their son, Steve Gundersen, said it was becoming increasingly difficult to help their father on a daily basis when he lived five miles away.
JoAnn Gundersen has been able to take care of her husband most of the time, but she also works a few days a week as a volunteer deaconess. Recently, she took a four-day trip to Montana, which would have made it tough on Steve Gundersen or any of the other children to tend to Willy Gundersen.
“Even little things that we take for granted, like putting socks on, would require one of us driving 15 minutes one way, complete the task and driving 15 minutes back,” Steve Gundersen said.
But because Willy and JoAnn Gundersen now live a doorstep away from their family, their daughter Christine Lawson was able to help her father with many daily activities.
None of this would have been possible if the 1,000-square-foot home next door to Steve Gundersen had not become available. Steve Gundersen had been thinking about such a situation for years and knew it was getting to the point of either having his parents move closer or putting his father into assisted living. When the opportunity presented itself, the family struck quickly.
This new house was more suited for Willy and JoAnn Gundersen than their previous one because it was smaller and did not have any steps. The old house also had a full-size basement, a convenience that was meaningless to Willy Gundersen.
For this dream situation to become a workable reality, a lot of work needed to be done on the new house. Willy Gundersen said the house was not even visible from the road through the trees and, although they wanted a smaller house, it was too small for him and his wife to host family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas as they have been doing for years.
“I don’t think one person could have imagined it,” Steve Gunderson said. “I think it took a group of people building off each other’s ideas.”
Those ideas included expanding and heating the garage, which Steve Gunderson said was important because his father’s legs can get very cold in the winter, and building a 24-by-26 foot addition that would serve as a family room for those holiday gatherings. The project also called for a lot of concrete to make the outdoor area easier for Willy Gundersen to navigate on either his wheelchair or his scooter.
All this work could have resulted in skyrocketing costs, but the Gundersens were lucky to have some family ties. One brother-in-law works in framing, a brother works as a plumber and some family friends are in the concrete business. Add it all together and the project came in well under a normal budget.
“It’s a very non-traditional type of situation,” Steve Gunderson said.
The exterior work on the house should be completed in the next week or two, according to Steve Gundersen. Work would then begin on the inside of the house, including building handicap-accessible countertops. But Willy and JoAnn Gundersen, who have been living in the house for two weeks, are already getting settled in.
“With my scooter I can go anyplace,” Willy Gundersen said. “Outside I can just go right from the cement to the lawn.”
All 11 of the grandchildren in the Fergus Falls area have been to the house and more will be visiting from other towns soon. Steve Gundersen said the aggressive goal is to have all the work done by Thanksgiving, but the more realistic goal may be around Christmas.
The Gundersens said they are extremely grateful to all the people who helped them with the project. Family members, workers and friends have all put forth the effort to build the new house as close to Willy and JoAnn’s vision as possible and do it quickly. Not bad for a small house buried in trees less than a year ago.
“If you don’t mind working a little bit and discovering as you go along, then something like this can happen,” Steve Gundersen said.
Obviously, Willy Gundersen does not mind working at all.