Would you think the man who helped eradicate leprosy and polio from the interior of Nigeria would live in your neighborhood? Dr. Dirk Vander Steen has been serving with Rotary International for 37 years, and the last 20 years with Kentwood since he moved back to the United States and the West Michigan area in 1990.
“It is an accomplishment that I really treasure,” Vander Steen said proudly. In Rotary and even before that, Vander Steen has stamped his passport with numerous locations and different experiences all around the world.
As a youngster he was already traveling around the world– but not for a good reason. He spent months in Grindelwald, Switzerland with three hundred other boys from his homeland of the Netherlands to be researched on the trauma effects of wars on children. The reason being he was suffering heavily from lack of essential foods and vitamins.
He then moved to Canada, quit school at the age of 13 and began working in a grocery chain store. At the age of 21 Vander Steen said God gave his life a purpose.
“I went to a young people’s convention where I heard a missionary speak and that touched my life then and there,” Vander Steen explained. “After that, I drove to Grand Rapids, met the Dean of Calvin College and he took me in, even if it was on probation from my two years of high school experience.” Here at Calvin, Vander Steen met his wife Jean who also wanted to be a missionary, and after a year they were married and on their way to Nigeria.
The Vander Steen’s stayed full time in Nigeria for 13 years, and even today make it a point to go once or twice a year to complete his ten years as a Trustee of the University of Mkar in the Benue State of Nigeria. They also help out and bring gifts they collected from Rotary. The Kentwood Rotary’s most recent gift was musical instruments to a Rotary club in Jos, Nigeria.
“It was part of Rotary’s peace project in Nigeria,” Vander Steen said. “To make music instead of war.”
Vander Steen has served many roles in Tivland, Nigeria- being a Rotary Club member, making prosthetic limbs for polio and leprosy patients, translating a steward manuscript, working with local churches, and his most rewarding role of being a teacher.
“I see kids that I taught and have watched them grow to become heads of organizations and the university or even being my boss,” Vander Steen shared enthusiastically. “It is one of the most rewarding feelings to see them succeed.”
One woman in particular has stood out in his memory.
“In 1965, I had the first female students in my secondary school class,” Vander Steen explained.
In Nigeria, young ladies were not allowed to attend any secondary school due to social customs. Rhoda Ako, one of those first ten females in his class, became the Head of Nigeria’s Customs. Vander Steen said that he is most proud of her work to create unity in a country torn apart by tribalism, and by her kind heart.
“When Rhoda Ako heard that I was back in Nigeria about seven years ago, she came to say ‘thank you for believing in me and helping me when I wanted to drop out’,” Vander Steen remembered fondly. “I think that is the best reward a teacher can get.”
Vander Steen has put more than 50 years of his life into his mission work in Nigeria and in serving Rotary. He takes great pride in the role he played in eradicating and educating people from Nigeria in regards to leprosy.
“I have done so many different things.” Vander Steen recalls. “My life has been so enriched. God has blessed me and helped me be a blessing to many people on both sides of the globe.”