THEY WANT THE UNWANTED
Taking children from broken homes and city streets this Quebec couple turned a run-down farm into a bustling haven. They have sheltered eighty waifs in four years and — without a dollar in the bank — they're now dreaming of a permanent children’s village
ON A QUEBEC FARM Dirk and Truus Vandervalk, a Dutch-Canadian couple, live happily with nineteen English, French, Dutch and Norwegian children who were unwanted and uncared for by their parents. During the past four years they have also given temporary shelter to sixty other youngsters, some of them beaten, bruised and starved, all of them unloved. Swelling the current family to twenty-two are the three children bom to the Vandervalks. And recently they adopted three of the youngest waifs. They say they would adopt them all if they could.
Surveying his crops, two houses, bams and livestock. Dirk \ ander valk, a lanky six-footer with an ascetic face, exclaims, “A miracle has taken place. There’s no limit to what God can do." His farm, Le Flambeau—which means "the light"—existed only as a vague hope four years ago.
For years Vandervalk and his wife Truus wanted to establish a shelter for unwanted and neglected youngsters. Friends told them they couldn’t do it without a lot of money and influential friends. They had neither but embarked on their project anyway, because they felt the need was urgent.
‘‘All we had to build with was a firm belief in the rightness of our work—and faith in God,” says Truus Vandervalk.
Today the assets of Le Flambeau are more tangible. On the farm, sixty miles southeast of Montreal, two rambling farmhouses are located on two hundred and twenty acres of land. A small station wagon stands in the laneway. Cows, horses, pigs, goats and chickens roam about. The larder is filled with jars and cans of food produced off the land. Bill Learoyd, a University of Toronto graduate, holds classes in Le Flambeau’s own little
school. The girls live in one house. Le Nid Fleuri the Flowered Nest ), the boys in the other. La Ruche (the Beehive).
At the rear of La Ruche stands a half-completed annex which will provide living quarters, classrooms and workshops for teaching manual training, electrical work and weaving. Like many other parts of Le Flambeau, this annex was planned without a single penny on hand. The Vandervalks hope to complete it in a year.
Recently I spent a few days observing how the warmth of family life works its healing magic at Le Flambeau.
Helen, a tall auburn-haired girl of twelve, was commended for the way she bathed and dressed two of the babies. “You’ll make a good nurse,” says Truus, beaming. Four years ago Helen arrived from a northern Quebec town, bitter, uncommunicative and sullen; her mother refused to care for her after the husband had been jailed.
Today she cheerfully goes to school and wants to become a nurse.
Marcel, a sixteen-year-old with black curly hair, entered the house after hauling feed to the animals. A weather-beaten and sturdy lad, he gave me a friendly hello and attacked a thick peanut-butter sandwich. Eleven months ago he was sickly and anaemic. His impoverished family, living near Rivière du Loup, was unable to care for him and despaired of his life. “He’s already gained twenty pounds,” says Dirk, “and he’s got more pep than anyone else around here.”
Denis, a slight twelve-year-old with piercing blue eyes, flicked on a broken mantel radio with which he had been tinkering, and music blared. “I think that does it,” he said modestly as the children around him applauded. Denis has acquired a family reputation for being Mr. Fix-it; he repairs clocks, engines, boots or anything no one knows what to do with. He came to Le Flambeau after being often beaten at his home near Quebec City because he was a “wild animal” and “dim-witted.”
Truus picks up Kathleen, a blond four-year-old with delicate features, and prepares her for bed. She had been a premature baby and the doctor’s directions for an enriched diet had gone unheeded. When her parents broke up a year ago Kathleen was sent to the Vandervalks by welfare workers. Now she has made up the lost ground.
Dirk enters the kitchen with a brash twelve-yearold, Emil, who is receiving special attention. He was raised in Montreal’s red-light district by parents completely uninterested in him. By day
he sneaked into movies or went shoplifting; by night he roamed the streets. But the Vandervalks feel he is responding to their encouragement and guidance. Now he likes nothing more than walking with Dirk around Le Flambeau and discussing plant .life or the moon and the stars. Recently he pressed a quarter he had just earned into Dirk’s hand with the request, “Buy something nice for the little ones.”
Although the Vandervalks have reaped a rich harvest in human happiness during the past four years they are still dollar-poor. Over and above what they can produce for themselves Le Flambeau requires five hundred dollars a month. The regular cash income, made up of allowances from parents and friends, is two hundred dollars. No organization or government is responsible for them. Yet they have ended up every year owing nothing.
Dirk says, “God never fails us,” but there have been some close shaves. One spring, when their food supply was dangerously low, i truck pulled up at the door and deposited a half ton of flour and sixty dozen tins of creamed mushrooms. They were a gift from a friend who had just made the purchase at a railway auction sale of unclaimed goods.
On Feb. 14, 1950, the Vandervalks reached their lowest ebb; a cash payment on the farm was soon due and their purse was empty. Then a bank notice arrived on that snow-driven afternoon stating that §1,867.20 had been deposited to Dirk’s account by an anonymous donor. A few days later
he received another seven hundred dollars an inheritance which had been frozen in the Netherlands for several years. When the end of the month rolled around there was enough money to meet the payment.
This past April, Truus ordered thirtyfive dollars’ worth of lumber urgently needed to proceed with the construction of the annex. A day before the material was to be delivered a Montreal merchant drove out to the farm and handed them an envelope with that exact amount in five-dollar bills. The merchant explained the money was a Christmas gift he had rediscovered while going though his desk to make his income-tax return.
“Such things are always happening to us,” says Truus. “And,” she adds doubtfully, "people tell us they are only coincidences.”
While the slender budget makes it impossible to give the children an abundance of material things they try to lie lavish in giving them what they need most—love. Everything possible is done to make the youngsters feel they belong to a family, not an institution. Dirk and Truus are addressed as Mon Oncle and Ma Tante by the older children and as Papa and Maman by the younger ones. The entire family eats together in the over-sized kitchen of La Ruche. Dirk, sitting on a leather chair at the head of the table, says grace before the meal. After the last glass of milk has been drunk there is another prayer, this time one of a more personal nature. Thanks are given because a pile of falling lumber only bruised Maurice’s left cheek, whereas it might have easily killed him. A special plea is made for Tiger, the striped cat, who ate some rat poison by mistake. (He recovered.)
The sense of belonging is heightened by the sharing of household responsibilities. For the older children the day starts at a quarter past six with chores. Donald milks the cows; Marcel feeds the animals; Denis, Emil and Isabelle tend to the chickens and collect the eggs; Joe fills up the kitchen woodbox. Other children start the fire, make the coffee, porridge and toast.
After breakfast the youngsters go off to school. When classes are dismissed they busy themselves playing, doing homework or working away at one of their projects —building a wagon or miniature house out of stray pieces of lumber, or whittling toy boats and tops, making dolls or trucks. Supper is served at 5.45 and bedtime is anywhere from 7 to 9 p.m.
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depending on the age of the child. Before leaving for their rooms the youngsters all kiss Mon Oncle and Ma Tante. Bedtime can be a crucial period for a disturbed child. One five-yearold came to Le Flambeau terrified of being in the dark. For six weeks Truus had to be with him until, at midnight, exhausted, he would fall into a deep sleep. His fears gradually left him.
Everything is shared by everyone. Whenever a child receives a gift parcel he scrupulously divides it with the others. Each of the older children has a garden patch: when the crop« ripien they take turns feeding the family with their produce. In the summer months the boys load the station wagon with strawberries, carrots, com, tomatoes, and peddle them from door to door to the cottagers at nearby Brome Lake. Each child receives a five-percent commission on what he sells.
Often the children turn back their savings into the farm. Recently Louis and Donald accumulated sixty-five dollars and purchased Pete, a light brown horse. “We can use him to do the raking while the other two horses are busy mowing,” they said.
Although Le Flambeau opened its doors only four years ago its historyact ually stems from the early ambitions of its founders. Dirk Vandervalk was bom in The Hague fifty-three years ago. His grandfather and father were pastors in the Dutch Reformed Church but Dirk's interest lay in landscape gardening and he graduated from the Boscoop Horticultural School. At twenty-four he came to Canada. After working as a farm hand in Ontario and Saskatchewan he ended up in Vancouver as a landscape gar-
One day he heard a sermon by a visiting Baptist preacher from Texas. The evangelist so inspired him he decided to enter the ministry. With only a few dollars he hitchhiked to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, near Fort Worth, Texas, and enrolled as student. Getting up at 4.30 a.m.. taking part-time jobs, he graduated from the seminary and also earned a BA from Baylor University. Today he describes his religious affiliation as “interdenominational.”
After Dirk’s return to Canada the director of the Baptist Home Missions assigned him to a parish in New Brunswick because of his knowledge of French. Two years later he went to Paris for further study. There he met the attractive Truus.
She was the daughter of a well-to-do Rotterdam organ and piano dealer. Although she had lived with her six brothers and sisters in ,? fifteen-room red-brick house which was served by three maids, she was brought up frugally and with a sense of responsibility for people in less fortunate circumstances. She had a burning desire to do welfare work. She worked in a children’s centre for a year teaching handicrafts, then got permission to join a mission in the slums of Paris. Part of her territory was La Zone Noire, an area of muddy alleys and dilapidated shacks, overrun with white rats.
Dirk and Truus were married in 1935 and soon he brought her to Canada.
He was given a pulpit in Shediac, N.B. The depression was still dragging on and Dirk felt uncomfortable about his regular income—eighteen dollars a week. What he and Truus must do became clear when a hollow-eyed girl of six came to their back door begging food: they would start a food kitchen for children.
A Moncton department store, a sawmill proprietor and a farmer in the neighborhood pitched in to help the Vandervalks get the equipment and food that was needed. Within « week the soup kitchen opened.
Each noon eighteen school children trooped into the Vandervalk kitchen for a large bowl of thick meat soup, several slices of bread and a cup of milk. On a few occasions when lack of funds meant changing the menu to vegetable soup, a leg of beef was my-steriously left at their door. “We’ve never asked for money,” says Truus. “We believe that if you are doing good work you will be helped.”
In 1948 the Vandervalks and their own two children. Gerald and Louis, came to Montreal. What they had seen convinced them that a shelter for unwanted children was needed urgently. With their meagre savings and the encouragement of other church people they made a down payment on a vacant soldiers’ barracks at Delson, fifteen miles south of Montreal. Finding out the Vandervalks' plan, a retired Montreal real-estate dealer, J. E. Wilder, thought he might be able to find a more suitable place. Soon after, he phoned Truus excitedly, “I’ve found it! I’ve found it!”
It was the farm near Brome Lake. The total cost was twenty thousand dollars, including improvements that had to be made. Most of this amount was to be borne by the Vandervalks, but Wilder deeded the property to them after they had paid only four thousand.
There was much to be done when the Vandervalks moved into Le Flambeau on Aug. 1, 1948. Both the houses on the property were without water or electricity. The nearby pumps were dry and the fields were overrun by grasshoppers. Dirk started painting, repairing and patching the houses and the bams. Truus knew that after Sept. 16, when the first children were due to arrive, the most urgent need would be food. She picked everything she found growing on the land—raspberries. rhubarb, cabbage, peas, beans —and put them up in cans and jars. By working sixteen hours a day for six weeks she managed to lay away almost one thousand jars. Together they picked bushels of apples, sliced them and dried them on the galvanized roof of their summer kitchen. The bam was full of hay and they sold most of it to buy two Holstein cows, two horses, fifty hens and ten roosters. Thus they were assured of a supply of eggs, milk and butter.
Six weeks after the Vandervalks moved in. Donald. Denis, Maurice and Helen arrived—pitiful waifs, ragged, undernourished and sullen. They were the first of a long procession of children from the city and country slums of Quebec to be directed to Le Flambeau. usually by pastors of Protestant churches, sometimes by welfare workers.
After cleaning and feeding her first four wards for a few days Truus began holding daily school classes in the kitchen, because there was no Protestant school near at hand. While the children were doing their lessons she would jump up and stir a few pots on the stove or give the hand-powered washing machine a few twists. At first the children tried to evade classes. But soon, under Truus’ warm and gentle guidance, they began to enjoy them. “Ma tante,’’ they would say, referring to the grammar text, “let’s have more of the fun book!”
The first winter was not easy. Dirk, accompanied by fourteen year old Donald, had to haul all the supplies by hand sleigh — a return journey of two and a. half miles. Water had
to be carried, pail by pail. Further repair work had to be done on the farmhouse to keep out the winter blasts.
With the coming of spring new children joined the family; some stayed for a few months, others for years. There are now twenty-two children at Le Flambeau. The Vandervalks hope they all stay until they make their own way in the world.
As the family grew, so did the problem of caring for them. In a week the Vandervalks consume a sack and a half of potatoes, forty-six gallons’of milk, a hundred loaves of bread, twenty-five dozen eggs, and thirty pounds of butter, peanut butter, jams and spreads. Much of the food is produced on the farm. Last year they were able to make fifty gallons of maple syrup from their own trees. Truus made one hundred and fifty pounds of honey by boiling together red and white clover, rose petals, alum and sugar. The rich fruitcake, served at Christmas time and on birthdays, is homemade from wild butternuts, dried apples, prunes, orange peel and gum drops. During one recent week a group of the older boys traveled to a nearby lake and returned with a hundred pounds of fish. This catch was stored in a freezing locker given to them by a storage plant operator, a brother-inlaw of the Dionne quintuplets.
Le Flambeau realizes a cash income, particularly in the summer months, by selling whatever eggs, milk and vegetables are not consumed on the farm. When buying food Truus stretches every penny as far as it will go. “I’m a good businessman,” she says. “I inherited it from my father.” Once a month she travels to Montreal with Dirk and returns with one thousand pounds of food, purchased at rockbottom wholesale prices from Pesner Brothers, a firm that provisions ships in the Montreal harbor. The bulk of the order is made up of flour, brown sugar, rolled oats, and rice; items like raisins are purchased in sixty-pound lots.
The Vandervalks’ devotion to their children has kindled their neighbors’ desire to help. The women of the nearby Farm Forum group frequently drop by with homemade cookies, cakes and jams, and their husbands help cut wood, remove rocks and plough and disc the soil, bringing their own equipment. On Mother’s Day, Mrs. Howard Blake, an eighty-year-old widow who lives nearby, showed up with a huge pail of strawberry ice cream and an armful of cakes.
Because the story of Le Flambeau has been spread by word of mouth, help often comes from more distant parts. A Chicago model regularly mails in thirty dollars of her fees.
Last August, the Vandervalks took a few days off to attend a wedding at Calvary Church in St. Catharines. Ont. When the members of the
women’s auxiliary learned of Le Flambeau they collected dozens of bushels of fruit and helped Truus can them in the church basement. A week later, when Truus was at home mopping the kitchen floor, there was a knock at the door. It was a couple from the St. Catharines church explaining, “We were so interested we came to see your family.” While helping dry the dishes after supper the woman broke a cup and saucer. “I’ll have to replace them,” she said. Four days later the Vandervalks received a cheque for two hundred and twenty dollars which promptly went toward the installation of an electrical pumping system.
Parcels of clothes frequently arrive at the farm, some from remote parts of Canada and the United States. A woman in Granby. Que., helps Truus out with alterations and mending; she has recruited six friends for the purpose.
Medical care for Le Flambeau is supplied by Dr. Arthur C. Hill, of Sherbrooke, sixty miles away. He was first consulted when one of the children sprained a wrist soon after the farm opened. He not only refused payment but volunteered to do all their medical work without charge. A postcard to the doctor brings any required medical supplies by return mail.
The Vandervalks soon realized they needed the help of other adults to provide the children with the love and personal interest they needed. They carefully handpicked another “Uncle”
—Bill Learoyd—and three more “Aunties,” Mrs. Learoyd, Mae Guinand and Lucienne Desruisseaux. These adults receive ten dollars a month and their room and board. Learoyd, a bespectacled man in his late twenties who teaches the school, says, “I stay here because I feel I’m needed.” (While Learoyd, a BA, does not have his teacher’s certificate, he is supervised by a qualified teacher from a neighboring town and his school is inspected regularly by the province.
What lies ahead for the children? The Vandervalks repeat that they would like to adopt all of them. But the parents, who seldom visit them, usually balk at legal adoption. In the meantime the Vandervalks are proriding the youngsters with a happy and secure home as well as an education. Those who want to stay on and work the farm will be welcome. “They will be helping others even as they were helped,” says Dirk. Later they might marry and go on living in cottages on Le Flambeau’s big acreage.
To those who want to go further afield and become nurses, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Truus gives encouragement. “With hard work and faith, there’s no limit to what you can achieve," she tells them. “We’ll help you all we can." The children are told that they can always return to the
“After all,” says Truus, “this is your home.” ★