Matt Boelkins ex’91 had been a coach for a couple of years at the Griffins Youth Foundation hockey program in Grand Rapids when he first heard Breanne Keller ’12 tell her story.
It was the 2014–2015 season, and Boelkins was coaching a team with Breanne’s husband, Mike Keller. The Youth Foundation offers hockey free of charge to kids who can’t otherwise afford it, kids whose life situations sometimes put them in difficult circumstances, and the team that Keller and Boelkins were coaching had several such players.
Before a special game at Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids, Mike asked his wife to address the team. He thought her story might provide some inspiration and perhaps some hope.
After the game, Boelkins texted a friend and fellow Youth Foundation coach.
“Do you know Breanne Keller’s story?” he asked.
“No, I don't think so,” came the reply.
“Breanne DeKleine,” Boelkins sent back.
“Oh,” replied his friend. “Yes I do.”
For many in west Michigan the reaction would be the same. The DeKleine story is a familiar and sad one. The lead paragraph in an Aug. 25, 2008, Grand Rapids Press story provides all the details one might need: “Former Holland Police Officer Ken DeKleine was ordered this morning to spend the rest of his life in prison without parole for killing his wife. A 13-year Holland police officer, DeKleine, 45, was convicted in July of killing Lori DeKleine after a jury deliberated only 75 minutes.”
Some of that—the death of her mom at the hands of her dad—was part of what Breanne Keller shared with her husband’s team. And she shared the depression her mom fought against and the divorce her parents were in the midst of when the murder happened. But she shared much more, too. She shared her story since those tragic events of seven years ago, the story of what happens after the police investigation is complete, after the funeral, after the trial and after the headlines.
“Mike thought that, if I was up for it, it would be encouraging for the kids on his team to hear my story and how I overcame some of the adversity I experienced,” she said. “Basically I shared a quick version of my life story and some of the hard things I went through and what I’ve accomplished and where I am now.
“I wanted to communicate how important it is to stay connected to a positive community of people, whether they’re your family or a church or a group of friends,” she continued. “I wanted them to know that, no matter what has happened, they don’t have to go through it alone, and they can reach their goals. They may just need some extra help and support along the way."
Still being written
Breanne told the kids that her story is one of grace. It's a story that included four formative years at Calvin, and it’s a story about being a wife and a child of God. It’s a story, she would add, that is still being written.
Prior to her mom’s death on Jan. 10, 2008, Breanne DeKleine’s story was a pretty typical Midwestern tale. Born and raised in Holland, Mich., near the shores of Lake Michigan, Breanne grew up in a Christian, two-parent household. Her dad was a local police officer and her mom had a part-time job at their church as publications editor, a title, Breanne recalls with a smile, that “she very proudly made up herself.” Trips to the lake, church on Sundays, family vacations, these were all memories of growing up for Breanne.
And despite the impending divorce in January 2008, Breanne was making her way through high school at Holland Christian in Holland, Mich., with decent grades, good friends and a variety of extracurricular activities, including the theater program, choir and Living Hope Singers. She loved her mom and her dad, and she and her younger-by-two-years brother, Christopher, also had a close relationship. She knew that when she went off to Calvin in the fall of 2008 that they would miss each other, and she worried a little about him, too, especially about how he would be after the divorce.
She had no idea as she headed into her final semester of high school that her fairly typical teen existence was about to unravel, to disappear into a distant memory as a new normal became hers to process and to grapple with. That final semester, with her mom dead and her father in jail awaiting trial, was a blur. And as that summer proceeded she began to wonder about the plans she had made to attend Calvin. Heading off to college can be tough for any 18-year-old, but her situation seemed almost absurd. Even though Calvin was just 35 miles from home, her home no longer existed. Her parents were gone. Her life had become a whirlwind.
First rays of hope
Yet in the midst of all that came the first rays of hope. Family surrounded her on all sides with love and encouragement, and she and her brother moved in with an aunt and uncle, two people of whom she says simply: “They became our new family.” Her church and her high school became sure supports in the storms that encircled her. And her faith became stronger through it all.
“God has never been anything but faithful in His promises,” she says now. “My family and friends never gave me anything but grace. They brought some stability and normality to my life. They helped me have fun when I needed it, cry when I needed it. They let me process at my own pace. There’s no manual for going through what I went through, but I never doubted that I was loved.”
Calvin, too, became a critical part of her healing process.
“It was really hard (to go to college), to be honest,” she recalls now. “I was dealing with so much, and I had a hard time making friends at first, even though I’m a pretty friendly person. I had also just left an extremely tight community of friends in high school (many of whom are still some of my best friends). Fortunately, some of them went to Calvin, and it helped a lot to know that people who knew me very well, and knew my story, were around if I needed them. My best friend roomed with me as well, which was amazing, since we had planned to live together in college since we were kids. It helped my life feel at least a little bit ‘normal.’ Over time, I met some great people and was able to get involved in different ways, so I was able to leave Calvin feeling like I had a college experience that I could be proud of.”
Interestingly when Keller looks back now on those first months and years at Calvin, it’s the classroom—particularly her first religion classes and then her religion major—that stand out for her. In fact she credits her study of religion and theology and her study of psychology (she was a double major in psych and religion) for a large part of the positive steps her journey has taken these past seven years.
“My majors in psychology and religion gave me the opportunity to delve into some of the deep questions that had been plaguing me, questions about the character of God, the nature of suffering, the role of forgiveness, among many other things,” she said. “These questions shaped many of my projects and research papers, and through that time of study, I was able to gain understanding that helped me process and reshape my worldview.”
She recalls with fondness her first religion class at Calvin, taught by Arie Griffioen. It lit in her a spark she didn’t know was there, and she took another religion class and then another, and before she knew it she was on her way to a major.
She says she can’t recall a Calvin religion class she didn’t love, although she does admit that the courses were not the easiest she could have taken.
Calvin also provided places of healing outside of the classroom.
“Dorm worship in Beets-Veenstra was great,” she said. “And we continued that tradition when we moved off campus by organizing house worship. We would get together with friends on Wednesday nights to sing, pray and be in community in each other’s homes. There were some weeks where that was the only thing I made time for apart from my studies, I loved it so much. Special props to my Rowland House girls!”
And she has fond memories of interim, especially the “New England Saints” trip with Gary Schmidt and Gerry Fondse.
She says with a huge smile: “I thoroughly enjoyed dethroning Gary and Gerry, the self-proclaimed euchre legends, along with my partner in crime, Gwyn Zwiers. We almost skunked them. It was epic. But really, that was a very healing experience. I got to have an adventure with some great people, pretending I knew things about 18th century American literature, and appreciating the simple things in life.”
A positive influence
These days Keller uses both her majors as she works in Grand Rapids for Spectrum Community Services as an in-home aide for kids with developmental disabilities, helping them learn independent living skills.
“I like that I get to be a positive influence in the lives of kids who need a lot of extra patience and care,” she said. “I also like that I’m learning a ton of new things, not just about working with people with developmental disabilities, but about skills that I may need for my future career in social work.”
She’s also pursuing a master’s in social work at Grand Valley State University on a part-time basis. Of that experience she says simply: “It’s the right degree of challenging for this point in my life, and Calvin definitely prepared me well for this program.”
She is quick to add that her desire to be in a helping profession like social work is not, she says, because of what happened to her mother. Rather from a young age both her parents instilled in her the desire to help others, and, she says: “I’ve known since middle school that some form of social work is what I’ve wanted to do.”
But, she concedes, that what she has experienced in life has not only deepened her empathy for others, but also helped her understand that “one of the most important things you can do for a hurting person is to just be there for them and let them know you care.”
These days she also is happily married to Mike. They met when she worked for Bethany Christian Services running a mentoring program and Mike joined the program as a mentor. They attend City Life Church, on Division Avenue between Wealthy and Franklin, a church that they say is trying to make a difference in a tough neighborhood. There Mike works on the Sunday slides team, while Breanne has just taken on more responsibilities as a worship leader.
The people at the church and her husband (they were married in the fall of 2014) are among a group of people who have helped Breanne in her healing.
“God has always put the right people in my life at the right time to guide and encourage me,” she said, “including my husband, an amazing, godly man who I respect and adore.”
Those people have continued to help her as she deals with the aftermath of those fateful moments in 2008. Last year she visited her dad in prison, the first time she had seen him since the day he confessed to the police. It was tough, she said, but something she felt she needed to do.
“I’m still processing, still healing, and I doubt I’ll ever fully comprehend my dad’s choices,” she said. “I feel like my life is about as normal as it can be at this point, whatever normal is. Really I’m not sure that normal is a completely appropriate goal for my situation. My life story is pretty weird. It just is. There’s not a lot I can do about that. Therefore, my goal is not to be normal, but to be useful. I want God to use my story in whatever way He sees fit."
Phil de Haan is Calvin’s senior public relations specialist.