I have devoted the past several months volunteering at Sunny Acres and coordinating certain aspects of the program there, and would like to share what I have learned by being on site and talking with Dan De Vaul as well as many of the residents (formerly homeless) who live there.
Sunny Acres has been in operation for more than nine years. It is the only place in San Luis Obispo County that provides a “long-term” living situation for people who were formerly homeless. In addition, people who come to live there are provided with three hot meals a day, 12-step recovery meetings held twice weekly, and a unique opportunity to rehabilitate at a pace that works for each on an individual basis. This is accomplished in large part by working on the ranch and performing such jobs as growing crops, dealing with the 40 head of cattle, repairing and maintaining farm equipment, automobile mechanics and restoration, welding, converting wine barrels into water barrels, and more. Training is provided as needed to those who show interest in a particular area.
All of these jobs provide hands-on rehabilitation that helps those who are getting sober to stay sober as well as building their self-esteem. Each resident is treated as an individual with their own strengths and weaknesses taken into consideration upon admission.
It operates like a large family with the residents carrying each other. Of course, no family is without its share of drama and Sunny Acres is in no exception. That being said, a balance of time, talents, and personalities has created an environment that works. Residents find their dignity has been restored and they respect one another.
A small stipend of $300 per month is asked of those who can afford it. Five volunteer hours a week are requested at a pace that fits the individual. Those unable to pay the fee are given the opportunity to work off the fee. Additionally, some of the residents are able to work enough hours to pay for their stay and make money above what is required.
Those with alcohol and substance abuse problems are required to stay sober and are tested on a regular basis. Those who are not successful are once again treated on an individual basis, and if a true desire to get sober remains, they are given repeat opportunities to realize long-term sobriety. Others who have mental and/or emotional problems without alcohol or substance abuse are given the chance to recover via the hands-on rehabilitation opportunities. As long as each individual is able to abide by the simple individualized requirements, they are able to stay as long as they need to.
After the organization was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, it was decided that Sunny Acres would pay a rental fee of $4000 per month to Dan De Vaul. To this day that fee has never been collected. In fact, during the first seven years of Sunny Acres operation, he supplemented the nonprofit program with his own funds to keep it going. It is only during the past two years that the program has become fully financially self-sustaining.
Sunny Acres has never requested or received any government subsidies or tax dollars. The Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo generously supplies residents some of their food (just as it does others with qualifying low income throughout the county) while the rest is grown on the farm. Monetary donations as well as clothing and other needed items have been received from many community members and businesses. Many community members, some in the field of mental health, have donated their expertise over the years.
County-run agencies have often referred many of the men and women who have come to stay at Sunny Acres. People working for these agencies have seen first hand the good work. It is truly a unique program, one that should encourage SLO County officials to forgive many of the alleged violations and make it possible for the program to reach full fruition.
Dan De Vaul envisions 10 of his 72 acres devoted to the homeless with the rest being developed in three tiers, beginning with some truly affordable housing. A Master Plan has been drawn up with some of the specifics to see this vision become reality. Because he owns the land, this is a viable possibility that could shine a very positive light on the County in terms of efforts to provide truly affordable housing as well as helping the homeless. SLO County has adopted a “ten-year plan to end homelessness” and Sunny Acres is uniquely positioned to help achieve the goal.
Dan De Vaul does not claim to be a saint, but he is a man who has the spirit to help the least fortunate in our society. He may be unconventional, but he’s effective and it cannot be denied that many people who were down and out have been directly and positively affected through his efforts and the Sunny Acres Program.
Matt Lombardini has been an active volunteer for positive social change. For more information, see the Sunny Acres website: sunnyacresca.com. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.