Jan VandenBosch Veenstra remembers the day the idea was born. First came the invitation to attend a conference at Michigan State University alongside Sociology professor Don Oppewal. The conference introduced the Calvin representatives to MSU’s Student Education Corps, begun in 1962 in response to Michigan governor George Romney’s challenge to college students to develop volunteer programs. “We were just so wowed by what Michigan State was doing,” Jan says. They knew Calvin had a call to this work as well: “this is what God would want us to do.”
“That was the beginning of the sixties, when people started caring about doing something for the world,” Jan says. She and Oppewal knew that the Sociology Club had been doing some tutoring in the past year, “a new idea,” according to its then-president, Sharon Draft Slager. When they contacted her, she jumped on the idea. The two women, then juniors at Calvin, organized a fledgling tutoring program for the coming fall, calling it KIDS: Kindling Intellectual Desire in Students. “We had so much fun coming up with that,” Jan says. “We were doing it for the kids. That was our limited horizon. Today, it’s all ages, all places, and all different things. But that was the expanding of an idea that began with ‘we’re gonna help kids.’” She smiles. “Children was too long to get an acronym for.”
Sharon recalls hanging up posters all around Calvin’s previous campus on Franklin Street. They held meetings in the dining hall, the coffee shop, or Jan’s ‘coop,’ as the women’s housing was popularly known. The program wasn’t very structured, they admit. “Safety, saying the wrong things and getting sued, was not anything we worried about... It was a very simplistic ‘we’re here to help you.’ I don’t even think that when we sent someone into the classroom, they had to fill out a lot of blanks or go through a security check... just a fresh young person who said, ‘hey, I can help if you need help,’” Sharon says. The first fall, about a dozen students went to Sigsbee Elementary School and True Light Missionary Baptist Church to tutor. But the program grew from there.
The biggest difficulty was transportation. The bus system was limited in those days and few students had cars. Though KIDS would eventually acquire vehicles to carry students to their tutoring placements, in the early years the driving was also volunteer. Students with cars would sign up to say they were willing to provide rides. As a student initiative, KIDS participants did what they could with what they had.
Jan and Sharon carried the experience and impetus forward into their lives after Calvin. They bequeathed the program to younger students upon their 1965 graduation, and both went into education. Jan moved to Dearborn soon after college, where she taught at a Christian school. After having kids, she returned to graduate school, after which she found herself at Comerica Bank, using her education degrees and experience to teach financial planning. Eventually she went on to become certified in the field, a process that required passing an exam with a fifty percent failure rate. “I said, Lord, if you have me pass this the very first time, if you bring me any of your children, I will do it for free.”
As a financial planner, Jan doesn’t charge any clients who seek to follow Christ in their finances and lives. “Interestingly enough, the second biggest topic in the Bible is money. Love is the first, and money is the second. God knew that it would be the hardest thing for us to deal with,” Jan says.
“That’s true,” Sharon echoes. “It’s a huge spiritual question.”
As a retiree, Jan does some planning for individuals and families who are referred to her by her church, local lawyers, and friends. Every Friday, she goes with her church to a house near Wayne State University to host a women’s day that attracts mostly Chinese international students. The women study the Bible together, eat homemade food, and practice English. Jan teaches the conversation class. The students are often excellent with written English but cannot converse easily, which hampers them from excelling in their discipline. So Jan serves them just as she’s served generations of students that came before.
Sharon found herself in education as well, but her route proved a bit more circular. From Calvin, Sharon went to Baltimore, where her husband worked in Public Health Service in place of service in Vietnam. They returned to Michigan for his grad school work and then moved to Jordan, working with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now known as World Renew). Sharon put her sociology degree to work alongside a Palestinian United Nations worker. Together, they consulted with villagers and refugees with disabilities, setting them up with employment similar to their previous experience. The family moved back to Michigan when the oldest child was in seventh grade and Sharon eventually returned to school to pursue Special Education, which she would teach for the next twenty-five years. “I’ve just always had a heart for people who are struggling,” she says.
From the early days of the KIDS program to their retirement years, from the old Calvin campus on Franklin to the Service-Learning Center’s current office in the Commons Annex, Jan and Sharon recognize God’s faithfulness. “It’s so exciting to think about how this has grown and that the vision was caught,” Sharon exclaims.
“And great that that idea didn’t just stay in the capsule, but it blossomed... and whoever was the leader didn’t just say, ‘no, that couldn’t be done,’ they said, ‘yes, let’s do that.’”
“I can still feel sitting in that room. We thought we were such big visionaries,” Jan says.
“Well,” Sharon replies, “it was the start of something.”
BY KATIE VAN ZANEN