New hope for house and its residents

Monday, September 21, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A run-down Victorian mansion and four girls have a new lease on life thanks to the quiet generosity of Jim and Joan Gardner.

Joan and Jim Gardner bought this 1885 Victorian house and helped establish Girls Hope, a home for girls with academic potential who come from troubled homes.
(Yoni Pozner photo)

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The three-story mansion in East Walnut Hills has been returned to its former splendor and this week begins a new life as the city's first Girls Hope house. And the girls who will be sharing the house will have a new chance to succeed.

All this because Jim and Joan love to honor their fathers.

Jim's dad, Louis Gardner, and Joan's father, Hershell Farmer, were orphans. Neither man, according to their children, ever forgot that.

The two fathers made sure their son and daughter remembered there were always kids who needed help, kids whose parents couldn't help them. And, if you had the time, the talent or the money, it was your duty to the community to help those kids.

Jim and Joan have all three -- time, talent, money -- and the hearts of their fathers.

Joan's father founded the company that became Cintas, the uniform people. Jim is a former executive with the firm.

"We feel an obligation to share some of our blessings with the community," Jim said.

"It's the way we were raised," Joan added. "If you get, you give."

That lesson led to Jim and Joan's involvement with Boys Hope - Girls Hope, a privately funded charity whose mission is to provide a home and an education to at-risk children with academic potential. Based in St. Louis and serving 14 cities, the charity was founded as Boys Hope in 1977. The Cincinnati program started in 1983. (For information on Boys Hope - Girls Hope of Greater Cincinnati, call 721-3380.)

In 1996, while taking his nightly stroll through the neighborhood, Jim Gardner discovered that the 113-year-old mansion was for sale. A century ago, it was the home of William Watts Taylor, the manager of Rookwood Pottery. Jim and Joan bought the house and gave it to Boys Hope - Girls Hope. It was the Gardners' plan to make this the first Girls Hope house in Cincinnati.

Since the end of August, four girls have moved into the house. Four more girls may move in before the end of the school year.

The home's opening is a dream come true for Joan. She has long been an advocate of Girls Hope homes.

Ten years ago, she told the charity's founder that girls needed homes just like the Boys Hope homes springing up around the country. Two years later, when the first Girls Hope home was established in Pittsburgh, Joan provided funds for that house, too.

There are already two Boys Hope homes in Cincinnati.

Now Joan's dream of a girls home becomes a reality in her hometown.

Sweet home

Late last week, the Gardners sat in the home's dining room and admired the surroundings. Light drifted through the floral designs on the leaded glass windows. Still more light came from the crystal chandelier over the dining room table and played across the figures baked into the tiles bordering the room's fireplace.

"This place was filthy dirty when we bought it," Joan said. "You wouldn't know that the chandelier was crystal or its fittings were brass. Everything was coal-black with dirt. Now, just look at them."

As if on cue, sunlight caught two crystal pendants and the chandelier gleamed. Reflections scattered down the dining room table where the girls and the home's resident parents take their daily meals. The windows, the tiles and the chandelier looked as spotless as they must have been when they were installed in the home in 1885. Along with the rest of the house, from the basement laundry room and the girls' second-floor bedrooms to the third-floor TV room, everything stood ready for Wednesday night's Girls Hope home private opening and dinner.

"That's when we'll finally get to meet the girls," said Joan. Girls are referred to the program by a variety of people, teachers, clergy, etc. The ages of the girls can range from nine to 18. Generally, the girls come from home situations that are hurting them academically. The program provides both a stable home environment and scholarships to private schools. The goal is to have the girls succeed in school and life.

"These girls are getting an education and learning a sense of discipline in a home atmosphere," Joan said. "What they learn here, they will carry with them for the rest of their lives."

Marie, a 16-year-old junior at St. Ursula Academy, hopes to carry what she learns at the house to an attorney's job with the Federal Communications Commission.

"I've wanted to be a lawyer since I was five," she said. "I love everything about radio and TV stations. That's why I want to work for the Federal Communications Commission.

"I hope to reach my goal by living full-time at this house." The girls get to go home every other weekend.

Marie has three younger sisters and two younger brothers. When she lived at home and went to Hughes Center, she'd start to do her homework, but her five younger siblings would interrupt her. "And I'd stop to watch TV."

"At this home," she said, "I can stay focused. And succeed." Marie likes the house. "Things are so pretty and nice and rich-looking on the first floor, it's like living in a museum."

Upstairs is different. When she climbs the stairs and goes to her room, she gazes fondly at the purple walls. "That's my favorite color." Then, she flops on her bed and hugs the Minnie Mouse pillow her mother gave her two Christmases ago. "That's when," Marie said, "it feels like home."

Quiet givers

People like Jim and Joan Gardner make Cincinnati a better place by doing good deeds in their unassuming way.

The Gardners give hundreds of thousands of dollars to good causes -- Old St. Mary's Church and the Mary Magdalen House for the homeless in Over-the-Rhine come to mind. They do it without fanfare, with no press releases. And they ask for no pats on the back.

When I called, Joan didn't even want to talk about the Girls Hope house project for this column. She had to be coaxed and convinced, and blushed a bit, before she opened up.

"We don't," she said, "like to advertise."

"We've worked hard," Jim added. "We've had a lot of luck and many blessings. It's only right that we share them with the community." Then he remembered something his father told him. It sums up why people like the Gardners give gifts to this town, year after year, in their quiet, generous way.

"Anyone who has, has to share with those who haven't."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.