MOOSEHEART – Gary Urwiler can relate to the students at Mooseheart Child City & School because, growing up, he walked the same halls, knew the same buildings and, in some cases, might have shared the same room.
He said he often shares his story with students at Mooseheart, but not everyone knows that he was as deeply rooted in Mooseheart growing up as he is today.
Urwiler, 43, the superintendent and executive director of Mooseheart Child City & School, moved to Mooseheart on Sept. 2, 1981, just a few years after witnessing his father have a deadly heart attack at a Moose Lodge in his home state of New Jersey.
Urwiler was 5 years old when his father died. For the next few years, Urwiler said, he went through a period of anger and rebellion, and he had trouble coming to terms with the fact that his father was never coming back.
“I was really close to my dad,” he said. “Life became challenging.”
His mother, whom he describes as a warrior, tried to keep the family together in the New Jersey area, and Urwiler was placed in a handful of foster homes there. He said by the time he was about 11 years old, he was ready for a fresh start, and his mother made the difficult decision to send him to another state to get the best care possible.
“It was an ‘I love you that much’ decision,” he said. “I can honestly say my life changed from the moment I got there.”
Today, 212 students reside at Mooseheart’s 1,000-acre campus near Batavia. The school is still tied to the Moose fraternal organization and is supported largely through donations from beneficiaries tied to the Moose International organization. Mooseheart is a home for children who, for a variety of reasons, can’t be with their families. The organization provides just about everything for the students, who live there all year, including education, medical and dental insurance, food and housing.
Geneva resident Anna Barley said as a former student of Mooseheart, she can relate to Urwiler’s experience. She spent a little more than 10 years there and said Urwiler was a fatherlike figure and mentor.
“I constantly looked to him for guidance living there and going through those experiences,” she said. “He’s an incredible role model.”
Oswego resident Joe Renegar, who was at Mooseheart from 1985 and graduated from Mooseheart’s school in 1996, has known Urwiler for 30 years and said he can “absolutely” relate to Urwiler’s life story. He’s grown close to Urwiler over the years and continues to refer to Urwiler and his wife, Donna, as mom and dad.
“We grew up completely different than about 90 percent of people,” Renegar said. “It’s a very unique experience. We all have that connection.”
Three decades later, Urwiler is still deeply connected to the Mooseheart campus and remains an example of its mission: Enter to learn, leave to serve.
Aside from a few years he spent in the West Aurora school district, most of Urwiler’s professional career has been at Mooseheart. He has been superintendent for the past 10 years and became executive director in January.
Not only did Urwiler grow up at Mooseheart, it’s where he met his wife and got married, and where he lives now with his family, including his three sons and his mother.
“When I talk about full circle – it’s an amazing story, just because it’s not by my working,” he said. “I praise God for blessing me with the experiences I’ve had, though some were tragic.”
Urwiler will be at the helm as Mooseheart celebrates its 100th anniversary on July 27. To mark the milestone, plans are in place to start a nearly $10 million school improvement project. Other activities, including a centennial run, a rededication of Mooseheart, campus tours, a bean bag tournament and live entertainment, are planned for that day.
Urwiler said he’s looking forward to ushering in the 100th anniversary while still holding true to Mooseheart’s goal of shaping students’ lives and giving them a second chance.
“Mooseheart just seems to be a natural fit. It always has,” he said. “I’m just glad I’ve chosen to make this part of my life.”