Alumni ProfileSheri Eastman Irish '96
A direction through service

Sheri IrishIn the fall of 1993, while she was walking from Calvin’s chapel to the Knollcrest apartments, Sheri Eastman Irish ’96 heard a message that would change her life—in basic, immediate ways and in ways she’s still discovering.

“I’d had the opportunity to share my testimony in chapel that day,” she said, “and as I was walking back to my apartment, I distinctly heard God tell me, ‘Sheri, I want you to serve Jill, and you will be blessed.’”

Jill Oosterbaan ’96, a wheelchair-using friend of Irish’s, needed a new live-in, personal care attendant. Reluctant because she enjoyed her apartment situation, Irish nonetheless decided to move in with Oosterbaan.

“Serving Jill has changed my life in every way,” Irish said.

After graduation, though Oosterbaan lived in Spring Lake, Mich., and Irish in Grand Rapids, their friendship grew. In the summer of 2002, Oosterbaan asked Irish to be her personal care attendant on a Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Ohio.

Joni and Friends is a ministry to people with disabilities and their families begun by Joni Eareckson Tada [.pdf biography], who was left a quadriplegic after a diving accident. Joni and Friends retreats offer “a time of rest and recreation, Christ-centered encouragement and the tools to build a stronger family.”

“It was a slice of heaven,” said Irish of that first retreat, where she and Oosterbaan met Joni.

Irish went with Oosterbaan to two more Joni and Friends Family Retreats, wishing each time that the ministry had a local chapter she could be involved in. She got her wish when she moved with her husband and children to Traverse City in 2005, just as the state’s first Joni and Friends chapter was forming there.

From June 20 through 24, Irish was again with the Oosterbaans at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat—the third retreat she’s helped organize and lead as an executive board member of the Grand Traverse chapter of Joni and Friends. Held near Cadillac, the retreat offered worship, small group opportunities, and recreational activities like horseback riding, boating and a talent show.

“We often don’t get to enjoy fun things as a family,” Jill Oosterbaan said, “because of the challenges of finding things that everyone can participate in. In that way, the retreat really brings the family together.”

A volunteer short term missionary (STM) assists each family, giving the disabled member a greater sense of independence and respite to other family members. The Oosterbaans’ STM, Harriet Ostindie Borgman ’60, discovered that 40 years ago she’d been on the Franklin campus with Gerb ’63 and Lois Wolters Oosterbaan ’62. That only heightened the sense Borgman has had at all 12 retreats at which she’s assisted: “It’s a big family affair,” she said.

Lois Oosterbaan said of her family’s experience, “Once again we entered a special place God had prepared for us.”

Jill elaborated: “In the ‘real world’ you often feel like you don’t fit in. On retreat, you belong. There’s empathy because we understand the unique stresses we deal with daily.”

“And,” Gerb added, “the retreat gave me new perspectives on ways of handling those stresses.”

Sheri Irish is quick to point out that the blessing of this Joni and Friends retreat extended to her, too: “I’ve struggled through the years with who I am,” said Irish. “This ministry has given me a place to serve as exactly the person God created me to be. And on this retreat the Lord revealed new directions for me in the work. I had no idea!”

Visit their site to learn more about the Joni and Friends ministry. To know more about Michigan’s Grand Traverse chapter, e-mail Irish: wsirish@yahoo.com.