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Son’s memory honored with home for orphans in Bali

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Gary and Barbara Gentzkow, who lost their son Michael Gentzkow, 33, to suicide two years ago, at their home in Rancho Santa Fe. In their son’s memory, the couple has dedicated a house in Bali as Michael’s Home, which serves orphans, widows, and the poor.
(Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune)

In February, Gary and Barbara Gentzkow traveled 8,700 miles from their home in Rancho Santa Fe to Bali to dedicate a place of refuge for orphans and homeless women. The modest white house is named Michael’s Home, in honor of Gary’s youngest son, who took his own life two years ago at the age of 33.

Gentzkow, 71, said seeing the good that this home is doing in his son’s name has been like a balm for a grieving father’s soul.

Michael photo
Orphaned and abandoned children sit on the steps at Michael's Home in Bali. Courtesy

“It has been healing medicine to my heart from that day forward,” he said. “Despite his short life, he will be remembered long after we’re gone.”

How the Gentzkows came to know about the orphanage in Singaraja, Bali, is a story that stretches back 14 years and involves a tragic coincidence. In 2005, the Gentzkows met Dan Yeager in a Bible study class at Village Community Presbyterian Church in Rancho Santa Fe.

At the time, Yeager was a single father, living in Solana Beach with his teenage son. Yeager told the Gentzkows and others that he and his son had spent the previous summer volunteering at an orphanage in Java and they were shocked by the poverty they saw. The more the church members learned about the needs of children, young women and widows in Indonesia, the more they wanted to help.

In 2005, Yeager and other church members formed A Heart for Children, a small, all-volunteer nonprofit that sent a couple thousand dollars a month to a group of eight Christian orphanages throughout Indonesia. The Gentzkows were among the handful of founding and sustaining donors.

Yeager said he felt a brotherly kinship with Gary Gentzkow because they shared both a public heart for service and a deep private pain. Yeager’s former wife had severe mental illness requiring permanent hospitalization, so he raised his son alone. Gentzkow had the same experience with his second wife, who was Michael’s mother. Unfortunately, she passed the disease on to her son, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 4.

Gentzkow, now retired, is well known in the local biotechnology community for his work in research and drug development for Advanced Tissue Sciences and other companies. His first marriage produced a son, Matthew, who is an economics professor at Stanford University. His second marriage produced Michael. And his third wife, Barbara, came into his life when Michael was 15.

Bali children
Orphaned and abandoned children sit on the steps at Michael's Home in Bali. Courtesy

The Gentzkows describe Michael as a smart young man who was kind, sensitive and a bit of a dreamer but whose emotional life was a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Michael earned a degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara in 2008, was a professional gambler for a few years in Las Vegas and was briefly successful doing telephone software sales. But as he neared the age of 30, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and struggled with his sobriety. He desperately feared ending up institutionalized like his mother.

On March 8, 2017, he checked himself into a Los Angeles-area hotel and took his own life. Two days later, Gentzkow got a letter in the mail from his son, explaining his decision was “not a sudden onset thing but the result of a progressive disease that has been eating away at me for a long time.”

Gentzkow said he was devastated by his son’s death but not completely shocked. The last time he’d seen Michael, about two weeks before his death, Gentzkow said “I looked into his eyes and all I saw was a deep well of pain.”

In an effort to find some solace from his loss, Gentzkow reached out to Yeager and asked if he could make a significant donation to A Heart for Children in Michael’s name. At the time, Yeager was planning to lease a building near Singaraja and the donation would allow him to build a permanent house, which he would dedicate in Michael’s memory.

Gentzkow said he was honored and deeply moved by the gesture.

Yeager moved to Bali in October 2008 to better administer the charity onsite, because there was too much corruption to ensure the donations were being used as designated. Del Mar resident Anne Chiplin continues to serve as the charity’s local director of administration and donations.

Not long after Yeager arrived in Bali, he met a single mother named Tati who volunteered as his translator. In 2010, they started a school for orphaned children in the South Balinese town of Klungkung. In 2011, they married and he adopted her son as well as a special-needs orphan she had taken in years before. In 2015, the family relocated to Northern Bali to work at an orphanage there, and in 2018 they began construction on Michael’s Home.

Yeager and his wife live modestly off his military pension and disability, so that all donations go toward the organization’s programs. Dollars can go a long way in Bali. Five dollars can buy enough rice to feed a child for three weeks; apartments rent for $30 a month; and $60 will cover everything a child needs for one year of school. Nonetheless, the needs are great for the most vulnerable populations in the Balinese Hindu nation and Yeager said A Heart for Children can only scratch the surface of the need.

Yeager said public education is free through sixth grade in Bali, but most poor families can’t afford the required fees and uniforms to send their children to school. As a result, many children get no education, especially girls, who are instead hired out as servants or married off to older men by age 12 or 13. Women who leave, or who are abandoned by, their husbands, as well as elderly widows, are often shunned by society and end up on the streets. These are the people that A Heart for Children serves.

The Yeagers live at Michael’s Home with 13 orphaned and abandoned children. They’re helped at the center by three single moms who do all of the cooking, cleaning and childcare in exchange for rent money. The organization also provides school tuition and uniforms for 60 neighborhood children; it supports 17 widows and abandoned wives; it provides college tuition to two young women; and it offers free weekly English lessons to 82 children.

The Gentzkows describe their February visit to Bali for the dedication of Michael’s Home as life-changing. They were awed by how much the organization accomplishes with so little money and how happy and healthy the children and women are. The front of the house now bears a brass plaque that Gentzkow designed with the words: “Michael’s Home, Where children are loved ... Michael always cared about those whose lives were difficult and needed a safe and loving home.”

In front of the plaque is a planter filled with yellow roses, which have special spiritual meaning to Gentzkow. A week after his son died, he was awakened by a voice telling him to go into their backyard rose garden, and if there was a rose in bloom, it would be from Michael. Sure enough, the 28 bushes — still weeks away from blooming — had just one flower in blossom. It was an heirloom Mellow Yellow rose.

“I do believe it was a message,” Gentzkow said.

For more on A Heart For Children, visit aheartforchildren.org.

-- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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