November 14, 2008 | Myrna Anderson

“The Gift of All: A Community of Givers” is a documentary about local philanthropy directed by Calvin film professor Daniel Garcia.

The Gift of All - Trailer from Calvin College on Vimeo.

By now, the editors have seen their faces and heard their stories 50 or more times: Peter Cook talking about his first promotion; Bunny Voss talking about learning the value of both sides of a quarter; William Sprague talking about his experiences in World War II; Lena Meijer talking about milking cows.

“The past six weeks have been 20-hour days,” said Chad Vickery, a 2006 Calvin graduate, who has spent those 840 hours fine-tuning The Gift of All: A Community of Givers, a documentary about local philanthropy directed by Calvin film professor Daniel Garcia.

Calvin premiere

The documentary makes its premiere at 8 p.m., Nov. 19, 2008, at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center. It was created under the auspices of Sharing Our Uncommon Legacy or S.O.U.L. of Philanthropy, a group whose vision is to create “a lasting testimony to the power of philanthropy in the words of those who helped to create a culture of prosperity and giving in the Greater Grand Rapids area.”

To create The Gift of All, Garcia interviewed 28 Grand Rapids-area philanthropists—people who, beginning in the 1970s, have contributed not only their money, but their time, talent and vision to the revitalization of greater Grand Rapids.

Unexpected places

“You are sitting in front of each of them, and they will take you to places you didn’t expect,” Garcia said of Cook, Voss, Sprague, Lena and Frederik Meijer, Harvey Lemmen, Margaret Sellers Walker, Richard and Helen DeVos, Peter Secchia and the many others who appear in the film.

“These people carry a message of virtue and wisdom that goes beyond the traditional idea of giving. They are loaded with the lessons of life, and they see that life as a gift to be passed on.”

The film tells the story of a generation of donors deeply imprinted by the historical events of their era: “They were born in the ’20s, and their childhood and young adulthood were marked by the experiences of the Depression and World War II,” said Calvin history professor James Bratt, who served as one of the expert voices in the documentary.

Lessons from hardship

The philanthropists tell stories of the generosity they witnessed in their childhoods: Frederik Meijer recounts being paid by a man in his hometown to deliver free milk to neighbors. Voss remembers that her uncle collected rents during the Depression based on what his tenants could pay.

“You can’t help but be touched by these people’s stories. They did not have it easy,” said Pam Daugavietis, a local freelance writer and the executive producer of The Gift Of All. “The majority of the people we interviewed started out with very, very little materially.”

Sacrifice and solidarity

The film’s subjects also revisit their memories of the war: of the horrors of combat and of soldiers dying in each others’ arms and of running in to comfort neighbors when the blue stars in their windows were traded for gold stars.

“I think the film tries to capture the spirit of solidarity that came out of their youth,” said Bratt. “And the nice thing is they remembered those moments of need and rallying together .... I think that inspired their philanthropic vision.”

Community revival

The film is also a story of a historic moment for Grand Rapids, a time when that philanthropic vision transformed the city’s cultural, medical and civic infrastructure. “Downtown was an abandoned place, a scary area,” said Garcia of Grand Rapids in the ’70s. “So, these people decided to transform downtown into a place of community gathering, a place to go on weekends and nights.”

The Gift of All is not simply the story of the physical transformation of the city, Garcia emphasized. Though the film does document the stories of the builders of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and the Van Andel Arena, for instance, it also tells the stories of people giving back to the city in ways that don’t leave a physical memorial: such as driving for the Red Cross and volunteering at hospice and serving on the board of the St. Cecilia Music Society.

Many ways to serve

“We want to make sure that future generations understand the value of giving back to your community,” said Daugavietis. “It’s not only giving money. It’s giving time and talent as well.”

Daugavietis and Garcia met in 2006, and The Gift of All: A Community of Givers grew out of conversations the two had on the subject of philanthropy. They served as members of  S.O.U.L, which raised $300,000 to fund the project. A team of historical researchers and interviewers also helped to shape the themes of the project.

Alumni crew

In addition to Vickery, Garcia hired Calvin alumni Chad Terpstra ’03 and Brian Posslenzny ’04 to help him film the interviews. The team recorded about 50 hours of conversation with the subjects, which took 650 pages to transcribe. He is pleased with the final cut of the film: “It puts itself together in a way,” he said. “It didn’t give me too many choices.”

Daugavietis added: “In working on this project, Daniel has combined his caring for the underserved—very deep caring—with a respect for these donors. It’s very sensitively done.”

WGVU screening

The Calvin premiere of the documentary is a prelude to the WGVU screening of the film on Wed., November 26, at 8 p.m. High definition DVDs of the individual donor interviews (some of which were not included in the film) will be donated to the historical collection of the Grand Rapids Public Library. And the film will be the basis of a Web-based curriculum created by Learning to Give for teachers of grades K through 12.

Daugavietis hopes that The Gift of All: A Community of Givers will inspire a whole new generation of givers: We don’t live in a vacuum,” she said. “We each contribute a lot to sustain the life we have. It’s not that you have to do everything. Just do one thing.”

No holding back

Garcia had the same message: “God doesn’t want your money. He wants you. Your neighbor doesn’t need your money. He needs you. We have something that belongs to others, and we have no right to keep it back for ourselves.”

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