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27 March, 2017


Bill Verkerke at his Care Centre stand for the Heart & Stroke Foundation...There was no avoiding him!

In keeping with my interest in ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things, I want to talk about a special, unassuming man who left an indelible mark on his community through untold hours of selfless volunteerism.

In Southampton, Bill Verkerke was a legend. For more than 15 years he went door to door canvassing for the cause that he believed in, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and was in fact one of the highest fundraisers ever in the Province of Ontario.

After suffering a stroke himself and having to move to the Southampton Care Centre, Bill continued his fund-raising efforts. Every February, he would 'set up shop' at the front door of the Care Centre to continue his passion and, this year (his 18th fundraising year) he was there once again for what would be his last.

While being recognized by the Heart and Stroke Foundation as one their best-ever fundraisers, Bill Verkerke was also honoured in 2011 by Rotary International with the Paul Harris Fellowship Award. In addition, in 2015, he was the recipient of the Jarlette Health Services 'Making a Difference' award. Beside canvassing for Heart & Stroke, he also volunteered for the Salvation Army (more than 1,700 volunteers hours at the Port Elgin Thrift Shop) and the Canadian Cancer Society.

Sadly, Saugeen Shores lost Bill Verkerke March 18, in his 88th year, but we can't let him go just like that.

Born in the Netherlands in 1929, Bill Verkerke was one of eight children of Willem and Jannette Verkerke. His father was a produce farmer and Bill recalled working alongside his siblings as they would weed their own staked-off rows in the fields. Growing up in the Dutch depression, the German occupation and then the devastating North Sea Flood, the virtues of diligence, generosity and community were firmly rooted in the young man.

After the Flood, with determination and $27 dollars in his pocket, Bill immigrated to Canada in 1953. He was supposed to travel to Saskatchewan but he spotted a map and thought that Ontario “looked so much nicer, more fertile” and he settled in Galt with his younger brother who had made the journey before him. He headed to the employment office and landed a job with Galt Casting. He stretched his 45 cents an hour and took a night course to learn English. All the while, he found time to plant and tend to a garden and shared his produce among his co-workers. 

Bill was homesick for Holland however and was considering a return to the Netherlands when he met Glennys Beechey, a co-worker that caught his eye and who had a knack for baking pies and preserves. Their love bloomed and the couple married in 1967. Bill’s family grew as he embraced Glennys' three children as his own.  In 1978, they purchased a cottage in Southampton where they enjoyed summers together with kids and grandkids. Bill delayed his retirement in Southampton until 1992 and then filled his days watching Lake Huron sunsets and thunderstorms with Glennys.

He was very devoted to Glennys and after her passing in 2004 he needed something to occupy his days. He wanted to make a difference and that's when he took on the role of fundraiser supreme.

A friend recalls Bill Verkerke at his front door on cold winter days, well past 80 years of age. "I always hastened to invite him in to take shelter and find warmth against some snow-filled, blustery streamer roaring over us from across the icy lake. A small man, Bill would stand in our front hall, red-nosed and glasses steamed, as he pulled from his plastic bag a receipt book. He was making his annual pilgrimage down our mostly deserted side street to canvass for the Heart and Stroke Foundation."

"He always called me 'Mr. ...' even though he had spent more years on this earth than I.  In his last years of neighbourhood canvassing, Bill’s hand would shake as he wrote out my receipt. Trudging through the snow and painfully climbing those two front steps, even with the assistance of his cane, was becoming a challenge. But there he was, cold and tired, just fulfilling his chosen volunteer service," the friend adds with admiration.

Statistics Canada reports that in 2013, 12.7 million Canadians were involved in some aspect of voluntarism, contributing almost two billion hours of service to their communities. It is a bit concerning, however, that the number of volunteers has dropped from 13.3 million only three years earlier. One cannot help but worry that the trend may continue downward.

Researchers have documented two other trends in voluntarism. More Canadians now prefer to give money to a cause rather than their time. A primary obstacle to volunteering is lack of available hours. A third shift is that volunteers increasingly want to engage in “ knowledge philanthropy,” offering a time-limited contribution where their specific talents and professional experience can be utilized to meet an organization’s particular need.

A previous Statistics Canada survey (1998) found that 49% of contributors made their financial support or time commitment primarily through a place of worship, Another 17% responded to a door canvasser while 13% contributed after receiving a mail request. That same survey noted that 31% of Canadians were supportive of voluntarism, either through giving time or money. Motivation for giving ranged from a desire to use one’s skills, a wish to contribute to the community or because one had been directly affected by the cause they now represented.

None of these statistics would have meant much to old Bill Verkerke and the amazing contribution he made to his retirement community in the last couple of decades of his life.

Metaphorically speaking, his friend can picture Bill now at the Pearly Gates, about to quietly announce his arrival with a tentative knock on that massive door which opens to Heaven and eternity. "Saint Peter has already heard about Bill’s good works, welcomes him home and quickly throws wide open that heavy door; this time Bill won’t even have to knock. A heavenly choir then greets him with this old Biblical chorus:

'Well done, thou good and faithful servant; enter now into thy rest'."

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