Bernadine Gerrits and her husband, Klaas, raised three children of their own and were foster parents to 22 others, something she mentions almost casually. Most were teenage girls. Some stayed overnight in emergency placements, many stayed several months, and a few became family. Bernadine describes it as a calling. “There were difficult situations by times,” she admits, “but in the end, the blessings are all ours.”
Giving and sharing was how she grew up as the fifth of eight kids. Her parents, Jan and Willemina Kamphuis, and Bernadine’s oldest brother, moved to Prince Edward Island from the Netherlands in 1953. They were allowed only $25 each on arrival. “They were excited to be in Canada, but I remember my mom saying we were so poor,” says Bernadine. Jan was a baker at home, but worked at a milk factory and as manager of the dietary department at the Hillsborough Hospital. He studied to become an administrator, operating a seniors’ home in Charlottetown and later Ontario.
There were difficult situations by times, but in the end, the blessings are all ours.
They were instrumental in establishing the Christian Reformed Church in Charlottetown, which provided an important social network. The family celebrated Dutch holidays and was active in their community of Alexandra, including organizations such as 4-H. Although Dutch was spoken at home, English was also encouraged as Bernadine’s parents were determined to be “Canadian.” Bernadine remembers her grandparents’ visits from Holland. “I can still see my grandfather trying to communicate with the teacher at my one-room school with both of them smiling at each other and gesturing back and forth, but neither having any idea what the other was trying to say.”
Through church activities she met her husband, from an Annapolis Valley Dutch farm family. They married a year after high school. He farmed and she worked retail. Nova Scotia had initiatives for young farmers, so after two years on PEI, they moved to the Valley and together built an award-winning hog farm. Bernadine also worked at a health-food store and a Dutch-Canadian shop. After selling the farm, Klaas worked in construction and then real estate.
Theirs was a lively household; they installed a pool so their house could be the gathering point for their children and their friends. Her family continues with Dutch traditions, including making hearty Dutch food. She chuckles recalling a future son-in-law trying to impress her by eating hagelslaag (chocolate sprinkles) — but on his ham sandwich instead of toast.
Bernadine feels blessed to continue giving back to her community by being involved with her family and church. Shortly after the sudden death of Klaas in 2015, the church began a grief support group called GriefShare which she now co-facilitates. She sits on the board of Ourhouse, an organization working towards opening a recovery centre for women with addictions. She also gladly watches her two granddaughters two days a week.
Bernadine says her parents are proud of being Dutch Canadians and of their Christian faith — true of the next generation as well. “I live my life 100 percent because of my Christian heritage. The part that’s the Dutch part? I don’t know how to separate the two.”