Inside Track: After retirement, a sudden plunge into career No. 2
Pat VerDuin, executive director of Holland’s Ready For School program, says she “didn’t see it coming.”
Like many new retirees who have wrapped up a long career, she decided to do something she always wanted to do. In her case, it was to indulge her love of education by enrolling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland.
But sometimes, retirement plans have a way of jumping the tracks.
VerDuin said she decided to take “a little part-time job” in addition to her classes at the seminary. The job was coordinator for a new educational program called Ready For School, a contractual position for 20 hours a week. Then it became 30 hours a week.
“It turned out that, from the moment it started, it was never part time,” said VerDuin. The hours she put in were much longer than planned, and her contract was renewed and extended. By 2011, when Ready For School became a full-fledged nonprofit organization, VerDuin was hired full time as its first executive director.
“Ready For School just grew over the last four years in ways that I could not have imagined,” she said.
Ready For School is a free program for pre-school children in the Holland area whose family circumstances may prevent them from being fully prepared to start school when the time comes.
VerDuin was honored in October as the 2012 Lakeshore Athena Award recipient, a program jointly sponsored by The Chamber Grand Haven/Spring Lake/Ferrysburg, the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce and the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. The award honors an outstanding role model who exhibits exceptional leadership skills, has achieved excellence in their business or profession, and has served the community in a meaningful way.
Patricia M. VerDuin
To understand why Ready For School struck such a vibrant chord with VerDuin, one needs to know her background. She likes to joke that while she has a Dutch last name, she is “not very Dutch,” even though she was born in Holland. Her maiden name is Sosa; her parents were Mexican-Americans from Texas who came to West Michigan in the early 1950s to help harvest crops.
Eventually, Juan and Petra Sosa decided to settle here. Despite the fact that neither had much education, her parents spoke often to her about the importance of a good education. They also told her that, “if you knew the law, it was an education that would open doors for you, and so education just became of great importance to me.”
She worked hard in school, graduating from high school in Grand Haven. With scholarships and while working part-time jobs, she attended Lansing Community College, earning an associate degree as a paralegal in 1977. She landed a job as a secretary in the Ottawa County court system and soon was awarded a federal scholarship to GVSU, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice in 1979. In 1994, she earned a Master’s of Management degree at Aquinas College, while still working for the judicial system.
In her first decade of work, VerDuin held a series of positions in the juvenile court, including caseworker, probation officer, and then referee in the Ottawa County Juvenile Court. As a referee she would hear cases in which the state wanted to remove children from abusive or neglectful parents, and others in which juveniles convicted of crimes were facing possible incarceration.
“It was difficult to work on the front lines with the kids,” said VerDuin. But it wasn’t long before she was working in administration, which wasn’t quite as stressful.
Things got busy on the home front, too. VerDuin had been an only child until her parents divorced and remarried; her mother had two sons with her new husband. About 18 years ago, when her mother’s sons were 14 and 15, both her mother and her mother’s husband died of cancer within six weeks of each other. VerDuin’s two half-brothers came to live with her and her husband, Ken, who raised them to adulthood, along with their own two sons, who were 7 and 10 at the time.
In 1986, VerDuin was named assistant court director, Ottawa County Juvenile Court. In 1998, she was named director of the Juvenile Services and Adult Drug Treatment Program at the 20th Circuit Court, a job she held until her retirement in 2008.
As head of Ready For School, VerDuin has come back into close contact with the Hispanic community, and that has an interesting twist.
“One thing my parents did was teach me that it was important to assimilate, so I kind of kept under the radar. When people saw me, they didn’t really see me as being Hispanic. They knew I was something but they couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was. So I would frequently have parents and kids sitting in front of me talking in Spanish, thinking I didn’t understand them, but I did. Or people saying that I didn’t understand how it felt to be a Hispanic person, when I did.
“So that was the other reason about this whole experience with Ready For School. I found myself having assimilated perhaps so well that I was yearning to make a connection back with people who were like me, that had the Mexican background,” she said.
Her parents, she noted, “clearly inspired me, always instilled in me the importance of making sure that we left the world a little bit better than what we found it. And that was important — to give back to the community.”
Since it was launched by the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area four years ago, Ready For School has made a difference. 2010 was set as the baseline year, when studies showed that only 55 percent of the children who entered public school kindergarten in the Holland area were ready for school.
“Last year, it went up to 62 percent,” she said, “and our goal is that, by 2015, 75 percent of our kids are going to be ready.”
The Kellogg Foundation was impressed with what the program was trying to accomplish and initially made a grant of $400,000 toward it. This year the foundation provided another grant of $2 million to help defray costs for the next three years.
Many sectors of the Holland area community have proved supportive of Ready For School, particularly corporations, she said.
“The corporate world really plays a big role in this early childhood program because they see Ready For School as a way to build a talented work force that they are going to need 20 years down the road,” said VerDuin.
The Readiness Council that helps guide Ready For School includes representatives from the area’s nonprofit institutions as well as businesses, including Gentex, RVE Consulting, CapTrust, Huntington Bank and Macatawa Bank.