In a stuffy, cluttered, cement-block room in the now-former Oakdale Christian School in Grand Rapids, the custodian rummages through boxes and bins of cast-off bicycle parts. Neighborhood kids call Gordon Van Haitsma ’73 “Mr. Gordy.” Major League Baseball (MLB) and People magazine call him an “All-Star Among Us.”
In March, MLB and People solicited nominations of people who “give back to their communities through community service.” They received names of more than 7,500 such community servants nationwide, among them, Van Haitsma, nominated by Oakdale teacher Natasha Witte ’01.
For about five years Van Haitsma has run “Mr. Gordy’s Read to Ride” out of his chock-a-block workspace at Oakdale. It all started when he mentored a boy at next-door Alexander Public Elementary School. For the boy’s birthday, Van Haitsma bought him a garage-sale bike and fixed it up.
“I was thinking, ‘Every kid should have a bike,’” he said. “But then I thought, ‘Bikes will take kids only so far. Reading will take them a lot farther.’ So I put the two together.”
More than 100 neighborhood kids have earned a good-as-new bike through the program. For every five books read (verified by a teacher), a child can choose a bike-related item from Mr. Gordy’s shelves: bike locks (“Always their first choice”), flashing reflectors, tire pumps. After they’ve closed the cover on their 15th book, he lets them pick one of the donated or thrift-store bikes that he’s transformed.
Van Haitsma also presents each reader with a framed photograph of him or herself with the new bike. On the back he writes, “Keep reading. Think college.”
When told that others nominated for “All-Stars Among Us” recognition were directors of foundations and nonprofits with multimillion-dollar budgets, Van Haitsma thought, “I’m out of my league.”
The kids at Oakdale Christian School didn’t think so. They stayed in at recess to vote online for Mr. Gordy. They prodded their parents and grandparents and family friends, from Ripon, Calif., to Sarnia, Ontario, to vote for Mr. Gordy.
Van Haitsma learned in late June that he had received more votes than any other Michigan nominee. He was awarded a trip to Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game on July 13 in Anaheim, Calif., where he and 29 other top vote getters—one for each major league team—were introduced as “All-Stars Among Us” and given a standing ovation during pre-game ceremonies.
A lifelong Detroit Tigers fan who grew up listening to Ernie Harwell call games on the radio, Van Haitsma stayed in the same hotel and shook hands with several All-Star players. He met MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. And he got to compare notes with the 29 other community-service All-Stars.
About those conversations, Van Haitsma recalled, “They’d say to me, ‘You don’t do Facebook?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I do Facebook. I talk face-to-face with kids about books.’”
His labor-intensive, people-centered approach to service can be traced back to classes at Calvin, Van Haitsma said: “Vern Ehlers’ interim class on landfills got me re-using and recycling. Gordon Spykman in religion taught me that if we’re all made in the image of God, then all kids are our kids. And I’ll never forget Henry Holstege saying over and over, ‘Love is not a feeling, it’s a commitment, whether it’s to a marriage or to a neighborhood. Make a commitment.’ So I did.”