After serving in China as medical missionaries from 1934 to 1940, Kay Gieser ‘31 and her husband Ken ‘30 came back to the United States broke, tired, and with nowhere to go. While the two had once called Wheaton home while attending Wheaton College, the town now felt foreign to them when they left China in 1940 for safety and health reasons.
Their son, David Gieser, grew up hearing stories about their transition back to the U.S.
“They got here and they were just shot and had no place to live,” Gieser said. “And so this hurt my mom, and she had a dream about someday providing housing for missionaries who come home on furlough so that when they come they could just put down their bags and move in.”
Kay Gieser’s dream came true in 1962 when she and her husband purchased an old house on President Street in Wheaton. From there, the two gathered a few friends and started the Missionary Furlough Homes Foundation to welcome and support fellow missionaries coming to the U.S. on furlough, which is a period of time when missionaries take a break from the field.
A few months later the couple welcomed their first missionary family from South Korea. Today, the furlough home project has expanded to include three campuses of furnished houses and apartments across Wheaton: one on President Street, one on the southeast corner of College Avenue and Washington Avenue and one on Michigan Avenue. Between all the locations, 22 families can be housed at a time.
“People don’t fully understand what it means to just walk away and go overseas and live in a different culture,” David Gieser said. “There’s an emotional drain that is really profound. We want to support these folks in their emotional and spiritual needs so they can keep on keeping up.”
Today, David Gieser is now on the board of the Foundation, continuing the work his parents started.
When Steve and Sara Currey arrived in Wheaton in 2022 after spending time as missionaries in Senegal, France, and Germany, they moved in and found comfort in the furlough homes.
“You just set your bags down and you’re at home,” Steve Currey said. “It can’t be overstated as to how important that is.”
Forty board members now operate the organization, which remains independent from any specific mission boards or churches. Wheaton Furlough Homes board members, also referred to as house parents, help residents transition smoothly to life in the U.S. Sara Currey said she was grateful for her experience with kind house parents that eased her transition back to the U.S.
“Our house parents moved us in and showed us where everything was,” Sara Currey said. “They had food for us, towels, and sheets. There was nothing that we needed. And they just said, ‘We’re here and if you need anything, you just call us anytime.’”
Sometimes Wheaton Furlough Homes are a place for missionaries to rest, or pit-stop, before going back out into the field. The Currey family plans to rejoin the mission field next year with their organization, Pioneers, a Christian missions organization focused on church planting among unreached people groups, communities where there are not enough indigenous Christians to evangelize without outside assistance.
For others, the homes are a place for missionaries who are transitioning out of the mission field. For Wade Watkins, a first-year economics major, the furlough homes helped his family transition out of missionary work. His family left Lebanon in 2022 so Watkins could spend his last year of high school in the U.S., and now his family is ready to leave the mission field behind.
“The Wheaton Furlough Homes is a really good community,” Watkins said. “Everyone here is a missionary and so these are the people who know your situation the most.”
Wheaton College is still interconnected with the Wheaton Furlough Homes, according to Jerry Woehr, the Director of International Student Programs (ISP). ISP hosts monthly dinners at a house near Edman Chapel in partnership with two missionary families. The dinner is open to both missionary kids (MKs) and third culture kids (TCKs) to allow them to get connected with adults who have lived through similar experiences, and members of the furlough community often join.
“Having the Wheaton Furlough Homes close by is beneficial to the Wheaton community,” Woehr said. “Those community family dinners have been a big gift and encouragement to our ISP community.”
Woehr himself lived in the furlough homes during his years in college, as he and his family moved in after Woehr spent two years of high school in Quito, Ecuador. Prior to that, he lived in Chile, where his parents worked as missionaries. Woehr said he tries to bring the vision of the missionary furlough homes to his support of international students at the ISP.
“I always use the picture of a harbor,” Woehr said. “I want ISP to not be a place where people go and hide away or retreat, but a place where a ship pulls into a harbor for fueling. It’s meant to be a place that sends people out onto the next thing, and I think that’s what the Wheaton Furlough Homes are designed to do.