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Royal Atrium Inn

Investing in Lives: Royal Atrium Inn Resident Recounts a Lifetime of Educating

At age 98, Gertrude Van Haitsma decided it was finally time to retire from a lifetime of teaching. Her remarkable ministry touched nine different decades, two continents, and countless lives.

Gertrude’s career began shortly after her graduation from Calvin College in 1943. For three years, she taught 4th grade at Zeeland Christian School until she faced a predicament: her little sister was scheduled to be in her classroom the next year. 

“I decided that wasn’t a wise idea,” Gertrude says, “so I looked around for a new opportunity.”

Her mother, who had always been interested in missionary work, had read about teaching opportunities with Rehoboth Christian School. Rehoboth, founded in 1903, was serving the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. The two women drove to Grand Rapids to meet with the Head of Missions. “He was delighted to see us,” Gertrude remembers. “He said they had three openings in New Mexico with the Navajos. ‘Would you like one?’”

Ultimately, Gertrude said yes, and that one word set the trajectory of her life in motion.

New Mexico

Gertude quickly settled in as a 1st and 2nd grade teacher, working with children who came to the school directly from their Navajo reservation.

“It was more than just teaching them basic education,” Gertrude says. “Rehoboth was a boarding school, so the children came to live there and didn’t know how to sleep in a bed or use utensils to eat. Their parents sent them to Rehoboth to help them learn all of those things, to learn about Jesus, and to also learn the traditional school subjects.”

Gertrude speaks fondly of those years, calling them “precious,” “beautiful,” “a wonderful time.” She smiles as she recounts Eddie T. Begay, one of her first students, who she says “caught my heart right away.” Eddie built on the foundation Gertrude helped lay, and he completed his schooling and graduated from Rehoboth, then went to Calvin College until he was called to serve in the military. He later became the Navajo Nation vice chairman and tribal council speaker, who influenced great changes for his people. Ed remained a friend to Gertrude throughout the rest of his life.

Later, another group of Christians in Gallup, New Mexico, wanted Christian education for the Zuni people, but Rehoboth was full. The mission told the people there that if they built a building, the mission would furnish the teacher. That teacher was Gertrude.

“Now that was a challenge,” Gertrude says. “I had found my place at Rehoboth and was very happy there. This would put me all alone—I’d be the only teacher teaching grades 1-6 as the school became established.” Even her pastor advised that it didn’t seem like the right fit for her personality. “But the requests kept coming, and when I finally said yes, the burden just fell away right away. I knew it was right.”

For the next six years, Gertrude lived in the hills of New Mexico, but she says those somewhat solitary years as an only-teacher were also beautiful. “I really picked up the culture there and got to know the families of those children well,” she says. 

After those six years, the children graduated, and the school closed. Gertrude wondered where she would go next. “The mission board said, ‘There’s a school over in Nigeria in Africa. The teacher there is due to come home on furlough, so we’re looking for someone to just cover that short time.’”

Gertrude said yes again, and, again, the burden lifted. She didn’t realize that this would become more than just covering a furlough. 


Gertrude arrived in Nigeria and found a much larger school run by 12 different missions. “They had all eight grades and high school. I would just be teaching one grade. This was very different than what I was used to.”

“I don’t remember being nervous,” Gertrude says. “Isn’t that amazing?”

Once Gertrude arrived, more families came to the school, and they needed more teachers. She soon became emotionally attached to the country, the staff, and students, staying on to teach for many years. Many of them came to school by plane, and whenever she had a break from teaching, she’d visit the stations where the children lived. 

Gertrude continued serving faithfully until she received a surprising message from one of her Zeeland neighbors who asked, “Are you aware of your parents’ needs?” 

“I was so thankful that my eyes were opened by my kind neighbors,” Gertrude says. “My parents were getting older and needed my help, and it was my joy to come home and care for them.”

For five years, Gertrude tended to her parents’ needs until they passed away. “Caring for them was really a full-time job,” she says, “but I did teach Bible studies at nursing homes when I could.” Her parents passed away in 1976 and 1977. “I was so thankful for that time with them.”

Gertrude returned to Africa, where she covered a furlough in Nigeria, then went to Liberia to teach the children of six families. When a coup broke out, the missionaries were forced to leave. Gertrude then moved to Sierra Leone to be a personal teacher to Aaron Kortenhoven, a missionary’s son who was struggling in the traditional classroom. 

“Sierra Leone was completely different from Liberia,” Gertrude says. “In Liberia, I could hear the ocean waves lapping the shore day and night. Sierra Leone was 200 miles inland, and we almost had to build our own bridges to get over rivers and streams to reach our destination.”

Under Gertrude’s teaching and support, Aaron became a good reader and a fine student. “I just started from where he was at and I helped him grow,” she says. “He just needed a teacher to get him over that hump.”

Aaron eventually graduated from a university and now works in research, traveling the world. He’s still in touch with Gertrude and attended her 100th birthday celebration. 


In 1988, Gertrude retired from missionary teaching, happy to return to her home church of Bethel CRC in Zeeland. Never one to rest on her laurels, she soon began teaching at Zeeland Christian School. She taught there for 25 years in various positions, ending her time there working in a landmark program created by Barb Newman, a pioneer for special education in Christian schools. This program gave Gertrude the opportunity to teach individuals who needed extra assistance, similar to the services she provided to Aaron back in Africa.

Gertrude had been praying about when to retire. She didn’t want speeches or a big party, but she realized that’s what retiring usually means. Thankfully, the pandemic offered her an opportunity to quietly retire with little fanfare. “They sent me flowers, and I received several congratulatory notes from different staff,” Gertrude says, “but no speeches, and I was quite grateful.”

When Gertrude turned 100, she did consent to a party, and she was pleasantly overwhelmed by seeing so many people come from all around the globe to celebrate her century of life and ministry. She has a guest book filled with the names of attendees that she treasures.

Finally, at age 102, she moved to Royal Atrium Inn after a fall helped her see living alone wasn’t a good fit anymore. “Even in this, just like all along, everything happened in God’s plan and with His provision all the way through.” She enjoys meeting new people, attending the exercise classes, and having meals with her neighbors at the friendly community. Sometimes she spends time in her apartment, where she reads or works on puzzles, sudoku, or word searches. She also enjoys visits from her nieces, who have faithfully cared for her for many years now.

“Whenever people ask me what my secret to a long life is, my answer is always that it’s not a secret,” Gertrude says. “It’s God’s gift to me, and it’s God’s challenge to me. He’s given me long life, and even when situations come up that seem troubling, I trust Him. I know there’s still a reason for me to be on earth, and I look for opportunities to be used of Him.”

The wisdom and life experiences Gertrude share serve as encouragement and an example to those blessed to meet her. Gertrude never married and has no children, but one could argue that with her investment in education, she raised many, many children who carry their memories of this selfless, faith-filled woman in their heart, and whose impact on their lives will be felt for many generations to come.