Caretaker Gazette: Readers live their dream

“CARETAKER WANTED. We have a 600-acre farm in rural Steuben. Wish to exchange free rent in a 3-bedroom farmhouse for part-time care of horses, barns and property. To apply …”

Steuben is in Crawford County. Too close to home? Then consider this:

“CARETAKER NEEDED in St. John, Virgin Islands, for a physically fit, mobile, 83-year-old man. He’s a retired sailor, with a pleasant disposition, diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. … Salary, plus car and lodging …”

The two ads are among the dozens that were in a summer edition of The Caretaker Gazette, a bimonthly newsletter produced by Gary and Thea Dunn of River Falls.

In October, Newsweek became the latest in a string of national media outlets that noticed the Dunns’ efforts. Here is a story excerpt:

“Who knew watering plants and feeding fish would pay for a sweet vacation,” asks writer Meredith Sadin. “Not just for party-hardy teen-agers, house-sitting is hot with penny-pinching adults. If your friends won’t hook you up, there’s a wealth of services that now cater to the second-homeless.”

The Caretaker Gazette was noted as one way to get a handle on caretaker jobs. A one-year subscription is $29.

The Dunns are in their mid 40s. Thea is a University of Wisconsin-River Falls professor whose specialty is math/education. Gary is a former investment company vice president. They have three children, ages 10, 16 and 18.

While living in Connecticut and working corporate jobs in the 1980s, the Dunns grew tired of “the fast paced, materialistic lifestyles of our colleagues and ourselves.” So they put themselves on an “austerity budget,” became inspired by books like “Your Money or Your Life” and people like Gandhi, then quit their jobs and got rid of most of what they owned in 1992.

The family – which already had accumulated a lot of travel experience – moved to Namibia and India; the parents became volunteer teachers. It was not work that they obtained through The Caretaker Gazette, although they were subscribers.

Their interest was piqued when the newsletter owner put his business up for sale because of ill health. “I had wanted to get into a home business, a newsletter business,” Gary recalls. The publication was a mere four-page flyer with a circulation of 500 when the Dunns bought it in 1993. Now it is 16 pages and goes to 10,000; there also are e-mail updates of listings.

“Our subscribers include landowners who are looking for trustworthy, reliable people to watch over their property, armchair caretakers who dream about quitting their jobs and caretaking a remote island, and subscribers who are actively looking for a property caretaker position,” Gary says.

For four years, the Dunns produced the newsletter while also attending to their own caretaker job in Carefree, Ariz. Then they moved north.

“My wife missed the four seasons,” Gary says. They arrived in River Falls in 2001, after Thea was offered a teaching position.

For more about the newsletter, go to www.caretaker.org or call (715) 426-5500.

Shelley and David Hamel of Westfield (Marquette County) are among the Wisconsin people who have obtained caretaker work through The Caretaker Gazette. The couple spent last winter isolated in a cabin in False Pass, Alaska, a part of the Aleutian Islands and adjacent to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

They call their experience a life-changing experience and a privilege. “Realistically, though, if it hadn’t been for David’s mechanical engineering background and our extensive boat experience – and if we’d been in less good shape – this job would have been way, way too much for us to handle,” says Shelley. For more about the Hamels’ nine-month adventure, go to www.stonewallplace.blogspot.com

“It is not an exaggeration to say that many aspects of this job were life-threatening: having an open skiff with only one engine in desolate areas; grizzlies; no medical care,” Shelley observes.

Gary says a challenge is for property owners to find caretakers for such extreme situations. “For some people, after a month or two, reality sets in – particularly when a couple is involved,” he says. “Somebody will want to bug out because they miss their washing machine or dishwasher.”

The Dunns do not make matches between property owners and prospective caretakers. Screening of advertisers is limited, but “we’ve never run into any serious problems,” Gary says.

“If you wanted to do something fraudulent or otherwise illegal, you wouldn’t want to do it with an outfit like us,” he adds, noting that information in his advertiser database is extensive.

“This is not a bulletin board in a laundromat, where somebody is looking for a house sitter.”

He advises his clients to put details of their caretaker agreements in writing, to lessen the chance for miscommunication and disappointment.

Some assignments are for a year or more, and families with children are considered attractive applicants. Other settings are more appropriate for a single person. Still others offer a salary (up to $200,000 per year) in addition to a place to live, but Gary says this work tends to be for celebrities or other wealthy families, who expect to hire professionally trained (not self-taught) caretakers.

The Hamels will talk about their adventures in Alaska during a Madison Audubon Society event at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Meriter Hospital’s Bolz Auditorium, 124 Brooks St., Madison. Admission is free. Refreshments are served at 7 p.m. For details, call (608) 255-2473 or go to www.madisonaudubon.org.