Distinguished Alumni Award • Bastian Vanderzalm '69

A gray wool blanket on a shelf in Bas Vanderzalm’s office serves as a constant reminder of the hope such a meager item can provide. The blanket was his father’s and was dropped by American humanitarian workers during World War II. His Dutch father, who refused to work in munitions factories in Nazi Germany, was in hiding in rural Holland, and toward the end of the war had no food and no shelter.

“He carried that blanket with him when we emigrated in the early 1950s,” said Vanderzalm. “For my dad, America was a place of great hope and compassion.”

That story is especially poignant for Vanderzalm, who himself has overseen more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid shipments to more than 70 countries in his role as president of Medical Teams International (MTI), located in Portland, Ore. “What a great privilege to share that same hope and compassion with others,” he said.

In fact, Vanderzalm has spent his entire career serving the underprivileged and victims of disaster.

“When I was a student at Calvin in the late 1960s, there was a lot of concern about Vietnam and a desire to change American foreign policy,” he said, “and for Christians to make a difference.

“Sitting at my Commencement ceremony [in 1969], I felt called to do what I could for people called ‘the least of these.’ I didn’t know how God would work this out, but I know that I felt His call.”

With a degree in both English and history in hand, Vanderzalm attended Calvin Theological Seminary. “I did not intend to go into parish ministry,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Who are the people nobody cares about?’ My answer at the time was people in prison, so I wanted to be trained in counseling for that type of ministry.”

VanderzalmAfter a year, he and his new bride, fellow Calvin alum Lynn Schrotenboer Vanderzalm ’70, moved to Boston, where Bas could attend Andover Newton School of Theology, which offered a fieldwork program in a maximum-security prison.

“After a few years, I realized that I would rather try to keep people out of prison,” said Vanderzalm. So he spent eight years as the executive director of the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Boston. The center provides temporary shelter and alcoholism treatment for homeless men and women.

“I loved the people I worked with,” said Vanderzalm, “but after a while I felt restless. These people were truly ‘the least of these’ in Boston but they still had so much more than people in other parts of the world. So I began to search for ways to serve the poor overseas. ”

Vanderzalm felt that working in health care would be the best route, so after earning an MBA in health care management at Boston University, he began working for World Relief in Wheaton, Ill. Later, while serving as vice president for international ministries there, he traveled to more than 60 countries in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa. “I’ve lived overseas for about four years;” said Vanderzalm, “all in three-week installments.”

This experience finally led him to MTI, whose mission is “to demonstrate the love of Christ to people affected by disaster, conflict and poverty around the world.”

MTI focuses on ways to provide medical care and improve the health of the afflicted around the world. Through the help of thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars of donated supplies, MTI directly serves 2 million to 3 million people each year.

“There is always something happening somewhere that is taking up your thoughts, your emotion and your heart,” said Vanderzalm. “We are always organizing and making contacts in case help is needed.”

This spring, Vanderzalm and others at MTI were monitoring flood levels of the Red River in North Dakota; they also had teams serving in the Congo and Sudan, among other places.

It’s his faith and the evidence of God’s grace that keeps him going day after day: “I don’t know how people do this without faith,” he said. “I’ve seen enormous destruction and suffering, but I know that God holds the world in His hands. Nothing happens outside His grace and will. In fact, I often see God at work in disasters.”

Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 tragedy provided examples of that. “In both of those situations, people ran towards the disaster. There were people who made enormous sacrifices to help,” he said. “I always see hope through the presence of the church and the spirit of the people responding.”

That hope and spirit is abundantly evident in Vanderzalm, according to Michael Holzgang, chairman of the board for MTI. “I will never forget when we were seeking to secure what is now our headquarters, Bas would go out to the site and regularly pray that the owners who were not inclined to sell, ultimately would,” he wrote, endorsing Vanderzalm. “We were grateful that God provided this facility that was almost three times the size of our former facility three months prior to the [2004] tsunami.”

For Vanderzalm, it all goes back to following God’s call. “If you follow whatever God has placed on your heart, He will be faithful,” he said. “Rather than being overwhelmed by the tragedies of life, focus on the difference you can make. Then you can move forward; you can be part of something that is truly transformational, and you can help to change lives.

“I am grateful for this honor, but all I’ve done is what so many Calvin graduates do with distinction every day: serve God with all my heart and strength in the work He has called me to do,” he added. “This award is as much for my wife, Lynn, as it is for me. Lynn is a talented professional who has had a distinguished career as an editor and teacher. But there’s not been a day when Lynn has not prayed for and invested herself in my work with the poor. I could not have done this without her.”

The Vanderzalms are the parents of two children, Matt, a graphic designer who lives in Hyde Park, Ill., and Alisa, a graduate student pursuing a degree in social work at Portland State University in Oregon.