Outstanding Service Award • Kathy Klaasen

Who knew that West Michigan winters were a selling point for Calvin College?

Kathy Smit Klaasen ’70 tells prospective students from balmy Southern California that the cold and snow are just “part of the educational experience — not something they have to choose for the rest of their lives.”

That’s why she makes sure to take teens for a visit to Calvin during February. It’s just one of the details Klaasen considers when building the case for Calvin.

Kathy Klaasen with Calvin studentsWith help from Klaasen’s multiethnic connections around Los Angeles, Calvin has enrolled students from African, Asian and Central American countries as well as ethnic minority students from her Sun Valley community. She’ll deflect any thanks, though, saying that she just has been in the right place at the right time — albeit far from her roots as a farmer’s daughter in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Klaasen dreamed of going to Calvin since she was in the third grade, when she admired her teacher’s distinctive ruby class ring and learned what it stood for. She was the first person in her family to go to college.

At Calvin, she met and dated Ken Klaasen, who graduated ahead of her and started his career in the aerospace industry in Washington, D.C. They married and became involved in the core-city Christian Reformed congregation there. When Kathy, a teacher, helped start up an urban 4-H club, the seeds were planted for the beginning of a community-driven life together.

A few years later, Ken’s new job took them to California, and they settled in the suburbs north of Los Angeles. They became involved in a diverse church community, building relationships with believers from sister congregations that meet on their church’s campus. These relationships opened up new doors for ministry.

Through raising her four children, substitute-teaching and leading children’s ministries at church, Kathy found more and more opportunities to connect California with Calvin. In the mid-1990s, she was asked to be the community coordinator for the college’s Pathways to Possibilities program in Sun Valley — the first out-of-state extension of the Calvin program that offers pre-college educational opportunities in select city churches.

Over the next several years, Klaasen participated in three of Calvin’s STEP (Striving Toward Educational Possibilities) West conferences and started taking prospective students to Grand Rapids for campus visits, often timed not just for winter’s full effect but for attendance at Rangeela, a talent showcase staged by Calvin’s international students.

Soon Klaasen was tapped to lead the Sun Valley arm of Calvin’s Bridge Program, which offers college prep classes to students needing extra help after high school.

Jose Luis Bolaños, originally from El Salvador and now a senior at Calvin, can remember Klaasen’s personal interest in each Bridge student.

“My accent and my English [then] were not very understandable at all, but still she listened to my questions and gave answers that I could understand and relate to,” he remembered. “When we had a break from classes, she would come out to ask us how we were feeling or to chat with us, always with a smile and with patience, and tons of love.

“Everything that Kathy told me about Calvin while I was in Sun Valley with her has made it a very comfortable place,” Bolaños added. “Every time I see her is a real joy for me because she means a lot to me and to all the students that have met her — not [just] because she has been a kind of mentor but because she has also been a friend.”

“I never dreamed I’d have this rich association with Calvin,” Klaasen said, “especially living this far from it. That’s been God’s gift to me.

“I have to applaud Calvin, which I think is out in front in reaching out to diverse cultures,” she noted. “I have seen firsthand the heroic effort they make. Every department I work with has been phenomenal in their care and support of these students. It makes it easy for me to assure families of students who are considering letting their child go that they will be cared for, nurtured and blessed in this place.”