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Distinguished Alumni Award 2002:
John and Juliana Flietstra Steensma

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John and Juliana Flietstra Steensma receive the Distinguished Alumni Award at Commencement 2002.

When John Steensma lost both of his arms after a horrific accident at the age of 17—he was shot through with electrical charges and fell 70 feet off a towersome in his home community prayed that he wouldn’t live through the resulting surgeries. There simply wasn’t much knowledge or vision about dealing with disabled persons.

When Juliana Flietstra’s widowed father left her in Grand Rapids to work on a factory assembly line to help with family finances while he went back to his Iowa pastoratethe young woman met some friends who were attending Calvin College and began to dream of books and writing and learning.

And when these two amazing persons found each other at a church picnic—John with his screaming blue satin cowboy shirt and appliances for arms and Juliana, who attended the picnic reluctantly with relatives—God worked miracles. Not only in their lives, but through them wonderful things happened in the lives of thousands of persons they touched.

“My mother had a lot of faith,” recalled John. “Even though, in a six month’s period of time, she had lost her husband, lightning had burned down the family business, I had my accident, my brother was brain-injured in a motorcycle crash and the first grandson was born deformed and died after a few months, she persevered.”

John’s mother helped him through the prolonged recovery and would not let those who dismissed his chances at a successful life affect the family’s decisions. The one person to whom the door was always open was Juliana Flietstra, who began a relationship with John soon after that important church picnic.

Juliana’s love of learning had enabled her to figure out a way to attend Calvin“for $37.50 a semester,” she saidand her enthusiasm was infectious. John applied to Calvin two years later through a grant from the State Rehabilitation Agency. Already John and Juliana were an inseparable team, with Juliana assisting John on typewritten assignments. They were married in 1945 when Juliana graduated and John took a sabbatical year when both were offered jobs at the Army hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. John assisted with amputees who were faced with the same challenges he had after his accident; Juliana was hired as an educational therapist, teaching high school and junior college subjects to patients on the wards.

“God steps in,” said John. “I’ve never applied for a job my entire life. He used the bad that happened to me for good in many, many instances.”

The Steensmas moved back to Grand Rapids after the war ended. John graduated from Calvin in 1947 and spent the next 12 years as the director of the new Child Amputee Project of the Michigan Crippled Children’s Commission. He was an early pioneer of designing and fitting prostheses for children, as well as developing training curriculum.

Juliana remembers that gradually they became convinced of God’s call to mission work but, for a time, could not find a niche. Abruptly, one day in 1958, through the auspices of Church World Service, an opportunity opened up to give leadership at a civilian rehabilitation center in Korea.
She said, “We had four children in school and a new house. But off we went, and my brother sold everything for us. It was a tough move! But the wonders we were able to see and participate in made this a blessed decision.”

During the time of John’s work in Korea, Juliana put her writing expertise to good use as editor of the column “Thoughts for the Times,” which ran regularly in the Korea Times.

“I wrote a number of the columns myself, but recruited a group of several others who would take turns,” she said. “It was amazing how influential this column became throughout the country.” The same column still appears today.

John’s work in Korea was ground-breaking and paved the way for major advances in rehabilitation services in that country.

“For any person in any part of the world to lead a life without a limb, let alone both hands, must be daunting and challenging,” wrote Professor Kim Hyung Shik of Seoul’s Chung-ang University. “But [John’s] own approach to life had such a profound influence upon the people with disabilities because they were so burdened with the negative and stigmatizing attitudes of so-called able-bodied people.”

The professor, himself a Korean War orphan who lost an arm during an air raid, continued: “He was a true pioneer in his field and the rehabilitation program he set up laid the foundation for Yonsei University Medical School’s Rehabilitation Center. So there was a significant contribution not only to people with disabilities, but also to medical training.”

Gaining the status of respected rehabilitation visionary (John) and journalist (Juliana) in the country gave the Steensmas opportunities to bring God’s Word to Korea in many ways. They recruited the first Christian Reformed teachers for missionary schools and had a major influence on the establishment of a Christian Reformed Servicemen’s Center, which provided a Christ-centered “home away from home” for military personnel.

After eight years, the Steensmas returned to the United States and settled in Florida where both worked at the Easter Seals Center in Fort Lauderdale. Then John moved to the University of Miami Rehabilitation Center and Juliana worked as an educational therapist in the Miami Veteran’s Hospital until both retired in 1985.

They are now living in Holland, Michigan, with many stories to tell and wise counsel to give on a diversity of subjects.
Juliana, ever the writer, is adding to her chronicles of an adventurous life. She made a beautiful quilt (titled “Time Passes”) that contains photographic renderings of the entire Steensma saga, complete with images of their four children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. In 1969, John Knox Press published an account of their work in Korea entitled The Quality of Mercy. Since then she has documented their time in Korea in a manuscript entitled “A Moving Experience” and is currently working on an autobiography for the grandchildren.

“Someone suggested the title ‘A Leap of Faith,’” she said, with a smile. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them ‘Little Hops of Faith.’”

Whether or not one calls the Steensma journey a “leap” or a series of “hops,” there is no doubt that the tremendous faith and determination of two Calvin alumni in a 57-year partnership have brought hope, help and healing to thousands of persons in need of physical, spiritual and emotional care.

Photo galleries from the 2002 ceremony

Lives Quilted with Gratitude
John and Juliana Steensma establish chartiable gift annuities

Distinguished Alumni Award
Criteria and online nomination forms

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