The Netherlands still had the odd horse and buggy on the streets when she left her home in a city on the North Sea for a city on British Columbia’s North Coast where she heard there were many jobs to be had.
Gerda Kouwenhoven immigrated from The Hague, the bustling political centre of the Netherlands, for a community with a population 53 times smaller. But it’s the sense of community in Prince Rupert that has kept her here for 58 years and counting.
Those first few years were welcoming, despite a slight language barrier, and Kouwenhoven has made sure to give back to the community in any way she can. This summer, Kouwenhoven was recognized for her 25 years at the Red Cross health equipment loan facility with a certificate and a cake to be shared among friends and co-volunteers.
Her volunteer service began when Kouwenhoven saw an article in the paper in December 1990 about the Red Cross unit closing down in Prince Rupert.
“They said they couldn’t do it anymore so if no one came forward to take over then it will be pulled out of town — and once it’s gone it’s gone,” Kouwenhoven said.
She accepted the responsibility to give back to the community, which she said has been good to her family.
She took the operation on by herself and since then the Red Cross has grown to eight steady volunteers, all between the ages of 70 to 84 years. Kouwenhoven is the oldest member, and the one who saved the loan facility from disappearing from the region.
When she first took it over, she shared an office in the Skeena Health Unit, and they only had a cupboard for a few pieces of medical equipment to loan. Since moving to the permanent space in the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital, the organization has expanded to include 200 pieces of equipment that are loaned out to people in need for three months at a time.
She cannot quit the Red Cross because she said would miss the group.
“There’s usually three of us left (at the end of a shift), Gloria, Josie and I. We give each other a big hug and we go home. It’s not like we see each other every day. It’s just that you know that they’re there when you need them,” she said.
It took some time for Kouwenhoven to foster her sense of community when she moved to Prince Rupert. After she married William, they left the Netherlands on their honeymoon to find work in Canada, where her husband’s friend said there were lots of jobs.
They arrived in 1958, and her husband found a job as a beer-slinger right away. But after two nights he was let go when his employers found out he wasn’t in the union. After some time, he started working for Northern Agencies, a wholesale business that sold candies, books and newspapers.
Kouwenhoven found work cleaning homes. She said that her four years of school English didn’t give her the immediate confidence to search out for office work. The family then expanded with two daughters born four years apart.
Together they built a small business, a grocery store called “Stopover” on 7th Avenue East. They ran the store for five years, seven days a week, and in the meantime she delivered newspapers door-to-door. Then, they purchased Eddies News Stand and ran that business for another five years before selling it.
“It was a lot of work but it was well worth it. I liked what I did, working with people. Same customers day in and day out. It was nice,” she said.
She bounced around in different jobs in the city over the years, working at the Yarn Barn, then in a Chinese shop and helping her husband out at the store. In her late 50s she retired, and she travelled with her husband along the North American west coast from top to bottom.
While they were travelling they looked for better places to live — weather wise — “but no where could we find a better place that we would like to live,” she said. No other place was as friendly or welcoming as Prince Rupert was to them.
She also volunteers at the Lester Centre of the Arts, with her friend Josie Mackey, selling coffee and tea during shows, and she volunteers at the Seniors’ Centre, where she joins a knitting and crocheting group on Tuesday mornings. She plays cards sometimes too but she doesn’t play BINGO. “That’s not my game.”
The Dutch, French, German and English speaker hasn’t been back to the Netherlands since 2001, when she had such a horrific time getting there.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York had happened three days before her flight, and she was stuck hanging around Vancouver, checking in every day to see if her plane was going to leave. She hasn’t returned since.