Paul Buursma offers friendly face at campus store
The ventilator droned gently near the bed, providing much more than background noise in the hospital room of Paul Buursma.
One year ago this January, Paul was in the intensive care unit of Spectrum Butterworth Hospital, where a respirator completely supported his breathing during a battle with life-threatening pneumonia.
This wasn’t the first health challenge Paul faced: he has severe cerebral palsy and has been in a motorized wheelchair since he was seven years old.
He needs several breathing treatments each day for severe lung problems. He suffers from chronic pain.
And yet, you can’t keep a smile off Paul’s face.
The ‘mayor of this town’
Today, you can find Paul at the entrance to the campus store on the Johnny’s side, greeting students and visitors alike to Calvin College.
Tom Van Wingerden, manager of business services, first met Paul through a weekly program for people with special needs at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church.
“I learned quickly that Paul has a great, great love for Calvin College,” Van Wingerden said.
“I also learned that Paul is kind of the mayor of this town,” he said. “He knows just about everyone.”
But while Paul seems to know everyone at Calvin, it’s seems like he’s been a greeter about everywhere else: Paul boasts Frederick Meijer Gardens, New Life Thrift Store, Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and the Christian Reformed Church’s denominational building on his greeting resume.
“But I don’t think he ever lost his great desire to be back at Calvin College,” said Harriet Buursma, Paul’s mom. “That was always his dream.”
So the Buursma family got the ball rolling.
“I knew [Tom Van Wingerden] was the bookstore manager, and that sparked the idea that maybe the campus store would be a place where Paul could greet,” said Dirk Buursma, Paul’s dad.
“Tom started walking down that road and began having conversations, but the wheels turned very, very slowly,” Harriet said.
It took several months to jump through the necessary hoops, but all the conversations paid off.
“Paul’s dream had been to work in some capacity at Calvin College for a long time,” said Gretchen Boerma, a staff member at the campus store. “We were excited to fulfill that dream for him.”
The campus store threw Paul a party last spring to celebrate his new post as greeter, giving him a Calvin shirt and eating cake together.
“Paul has a gift of helpfulness and looking out for the needs of others – a perfect fit for a retail store whose mission is to serve the community and create a Christ-centered environment,” Van Wingerden said.
Paul’s gift to Calvin
Dirk Buursma said that there are ways that Paul’s presence on campus can help students pick up important insights.
“I think there’s a lot that people can learn from Paul,” Dirk said.
“For the Calvin community, it’s a way of embracing the inclusive vision we want,” he said. “It’s a way of breaking down some barriers and getting to know someone who has a very clear disability.”
Not only does Paul break down those barriers, Van Wingerden said, but he helps connect people too.
“Much of what he does is about creating harmony, acceptance and love for one another,” Van Wingerden said. “Paul’s presence creates a community of inclusion, and I believe a glimpse of what heaven might be like.”
This inclusion is fostered by Paul’s kindness – and his famous smile.
“I think some of Paul’s best gifts are his sense of humor, his huge smile and his friendliness. Paul will engage anyone,” Dirk said.
And not only will he engage them – he’ll make them feel at home.
“When I see him in the hallway or at LOFT and he looks me in the eyes, I have a sense that he knows me, and all in the midst for him of what has been a harder life than for most,” said Shirley Hoogstra, vice president for student life at Calvin and family friend of the Buursmas. “So I think: if Paul can, can’t I?”
But greeting at the campus store is also a gift that gives back.
“If you could see Paul’s eyes light up when he works here, you would know [how Calvin benefits Paul],” said Boerma. “He is very happy to greet, and it gives him a purpose each day that he comes.”
“For Paul, it’s being a part of a community that he loves. He can experience the kinds of things that are important to him: acceptance, the faith community, the sports aspect,” said Dirk.
“He probably watches more archived Calvin events than anyone else,” he laughed. “He’s quite the Calvin ambassador, that’s for sure.”
A ‘man who trusts God’
While Paul is admired on campus for his smile and his joy, he’s well-respected for another quality: his faith.
“When you stand next to Paul in chapel or LOFT, you can hear him sing loudly and know that this is a brother who loves our Lord,” said Mary Hulst, college chaplain.
In light of his recent health concerns, Hulst sees the good news of Paul’s testimony bringing encouragement to others.
“Last year he was seriously ill and we thought we were going to lose him, but God restored his health and Paul claimed it as the work of God in his life,” Hulst said.
“When we did cardboard testimonies at our year-end celebration, Paul did one, too, celebrating God’s healing in his life,” she said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
“I believe there are a number of people in Paul’s situation who think more about the things that they cannot do,” said Van Wingerden. “Paul, on the other hand, has looked for ways to use his gifts and further God’s kingdom.”
Paul’s testimony of strength and courage drew the praise of some of Calvin’s top leaders.
“Paul represents pure perseverance,” said Hoogstra. “In the midst of a visible difficulty, Paul gets up and has a positive attitude and a desire to serve. Paul represents a man who trusts God.”
And it’s that trust that Van Wingerden says makes Paul a person to admire and emulate.
“Paul’s faith is evident in all that he does and who he is,” he said. “Paul has not only shown the Calvin community that he has something significant to contribute, but has also shown us all how to be image bearers of Christ.”
Hulst encourages members of the Calvin community – students, faculty, staff and visitors – to get to know Paul.
“It can take patience to listen well to Paul, as his voice is quiet and his manner is gentle, but I encourage everyone who sees Paul to greet him and get to know him,” she said. “You’ll have gained a brother.”