Restoration House approaches 10th anniversary
It has been almost a decade since Pastors Matt and Leticia “Tish” Zehr purchased the Constableville Elementary School.
Restoration House approaches 10th anniversary
CONSTABLEVILLE — It has been almost a decade since Pastors Matt and Leticia “Tish” Zehr purchased the Constableville Elementary School, 5837 West Main St., from the South Lewis Central School District (SLCSD). In that time, the Zehrs have transformed the old school – now called the Restoration House – to not only their home, but also a thriving bed and breakfast whose doors are open to all.
Matt and Tish are originally from Lowville. Matthew graduated from Lowville Academy Central School in 1987, and the former Tish Moore graduated from Beaver River in 1990.
Tish said that she and her husband have always wanted something like the Restoration House, even before they had children. “When Matt and I were first married, we had a vision in our hearts to take in young adults and just do practical life skills with them,” she explained.
Years later, at a church where she received ministry, Tish recalled, “There was a word over me that said, ‘You’ll have a big, big home, and it’s going to be colorful. Tish, you have an eye for decorating, and you’re going to decorate it.’”
She was thrilled to hear it, but even still, the dream seemed too big to actually materialize: “I thought to myself, I love it, I want to believe it, but how am I going to believe that? How’s that really going to happen?”
Tish had her doubts initially, but her faith was stronger. She sat down with her Bible and prayed, reading from 2 Chronicles 20:20: “Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe His prophets and you will prosper.”
This started a 10-year journey looking for “the place.” Nothing panned out until around 2012, when the SLCSD announced that Constableville Elementary School was for sale. The Zehrs learned about the property through photos shared on Facebook by their niece. Upon seeing the photos, Matt suggested that they tour the property in person.
The opportunity was almost too good to be true, Tish thought. Surely, there must have been others who expressed interest in the property already. To her surprise, the realtor informed Tish and her husband that they were the very first ones to show any interest.
“We were really just elbowing each other, because we had been looking for years,” Tish said.
In order to purchase the property, the Zehrs had to submit a proposal to the South Lewis Board of Education outlining their intentions, which were to create a community center. The board reviewed their proposal in addition to others that eventually came in. According to Tish, leaving the decision in the hands of the board was a relief; if it was meant to be it would be, she reasoned.
“For us [it] was really great, because honestly, we didn’t want to be in charge of that decision,” Tish explained. “It felt more like, ‘Okay God, You’re in this for us. You’re going to make a way or you’re not going to make a way’ – and if He does, then this is the time and the time is right.”
The board expressed interest in the Zehrs’ proposal, but the purchase was contingent upon the sale of their home. The school was listed at $75,000, which they could not afford. For more input, Tish gathered the men of their family and told them about her vision for the property – how she planned to serve the community, what renovations, furniture and supplies would be needed, etc. They immediately replied no, stating that it was simply too expensive an endeavor for Tish and her husband to take on.
Still, the two looked for ways to alleviate costs. One additional expense would have been a sprinkler system. Fortunately, the codes officer at the time classified the building as two stories instead of three, meaning that a sprinkler system wasn’t necessary.
This saved the Zehrs a considerable amount of money, but not enough to purchase the property. They returned to the board offering $50,000. At this point, their proposal was the only one left, and the board accepted the offer.
The biggest concern of the Zehrs was how to heat the building. Before, it had cost the SLCSD $30,000 a year to heat Constableville Elementary. To avoid paying anything close to this, Matt researched the best and most efficient heat sources available. A wood chip furnace seemed like the best option, and it was – cutting the cost of heating the school from $30,000 to $5,000 a year.
The building was completely empty when the Zehrs first bought it in the fall of 2013. The family, including the couple’s four children who were between the ages of 11 and 18 at the time, worked together to renovate the floors and walls, bring in furniture, install appliances and more. Tish said that it is because the family came together that the project was able to be successful.
At the moment, the Restoration House is being operated by Tish, their daughter Alexi, and Matt, who also works full-time as a planner for Vestas-American Wind Technology. They are also being assisted by their daughter Courtney (married to Elijah) Lubula, who will soon be leaving for a mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The couple also have two sons, Matthew (Lizzy) and Caleb (Sierra). They are blessed with four grandchildren, Hazel, Jude and Gracy Zehr, and Joshua Lubula.
While the original plan was for the school to be a community center, the Zehrs have expanded upon this vision to create a bed and breakfast, as well as a haven for refugees, victims of abuse, or anyone else going through trying times.
When the idea about turning the building into a bed and breakfast came up, the Zehrs were concerned again about finances. Matt introduced Tish to Airbnb, a short-term vacation rental company, and she agreed to list the Restoration House, not expecting much to come of it.
But the Airbnb listing gained attention – so much attention that Tish had to turn notifications off on her phone. She was amazed at the sheer number of people from all over the world who wanted to stay at the Restoration House, including snowmobilers, hikers, people on their way to Old Forge, people passing through from New York City to Canada, and large families that could not be accommodated by regular hotels. Some came from as far as Asia, Europe and Africa.
Tish first encountered refugee children at one of Alexi’s dance performances in Syracuse. She recalls that there were nearly 100 of them from all different parts of the world, all in traditional dress. When she asked about them, she was told that these were refugee children fleeing war, famine and other disasters in their native countries.
The refugee organization was called Hopeprint, and Tish’s other daughter, Courtney, having a heart for missions, wanted to help the children in any way she could. So, each Monday, Tish and her daughters traveled to Syracuse to teach female refugees practical life skills.
One day, Tish received a call from the founder of Hopeprint, who said that there was a woman going home to an abusive husband, and that she needed a place to go the next day. Tish picked her up the following morning, and so began the process of taking in vulnerable people.
The Restoration House is still listed on Airbnb at around $60-$70 a night. However, people may also come if they need a place to stay at no charge. Tish explained that for example, a person struggling financially could stay at the Restoration House while looking for work. They do ask that those staying help with house chores, but understand if someone is not physically able to do so.
The Restoration House is also open to those who don’t intend to stay overnight, but just want a place to hang out, do crafts or activities, or have someone to talk to. “Our door’s always open,” Tish said. “We’re happy to visit, happy to give tours.”
There are also several events and clubs that take place at the house. One such club is the quilt guild; those interested may call 315-921-0264. There will also be a program for kids and young adults called Encounter School, which will run from Feb. 20 through March 18. Its purpose, as Tish puts it, is “to help bring back identity in Christ.”
Applications are available here .
Tish accredits the success of the Restoration House to her family’s faith in God. “In 10 years, I’m just amazed at the miracles we’ve seen,” she said.
Tish reiterated that their doors are always open, and that people are free to stay or just visit anytime they like. “What we see is that there’s a lot of hurting people out there,” Tish said. “We just want people to know that it’s our desire [to help].”
For updates on what’s going on at the Restoration House, see their Facebook page or website. For questions, please call the number listed above or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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