May 03 • 04:03 PM

Sisters leave $1.2 million legacy

Imlay City women give record endowment to Four County Foundation

Imlay City sisters Toos and Dora Ondersma left their $1.2 million estate to the Four County Community Foundation to be used as an unrestricted endowment. They’ve entrusted foundation board members to distribute the funds to the most worthy recipients.

February 08, 2012
TRI-CITY AREA — They only called Imlay City home for the last few decades of their life but Dora and Toos Ondersma felt a strong enough connection to the community and its people to leave a lasting legacy. And lasting it will be.

In the fall of 2010, the Four County Community Foundation announced that they had received an unrestricted endowment of $1.2 million from the Ondersmas' estate, the largest of its kind in the foundation's 25 year history.

"There will always be some kind of project going on in the community in their memories," Foundation President and CEO Janet Bauer said of the sizeable gift.

With no strings attached, the sisters entrusted the job of doling out that money to foundation members.

"This is our first major gift where the donor designated the board to make the decision of priority when it comes to grantmaking," Bauer said.

With $40,000 in endowment funds, the Four County board opted to launch their two-year 'No Child Left Indoors' initiative last year.

Funds are used for youth programming at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden and Wolcott Mill in Macomb County. Bauer said they assist area schools with transportation costs, entry fees or both to ensure elementary students can take fields trips to either of the local nature centers. Eligible districts include Almont, Armada, Capac, Dryden, Imlay City, Romeo and Oxford.

"We've always supported Seven Ponds and Wolcott Mill and believe that they are wonderful resources in our community for their efforts in getting children and adults excited about the outdoors," Bauer said.

"We also support access to technology but it's become apparent that children benefit from being 'unplugged' too."

Bauer said the idea for the program came from Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."

Recent statistics suggest that children spend an average of 40-50 hours per week in front of a computer, t.v. or other electronic device, compared to a mere four to five hours outdoors.

The goal is that these kinds of learning experiences outside of the classroom will give youngsters the urge to spend more of their free time outdoors and eventually seek out activities with an academic bent that interest them like biology, animal science and environmental studies.

The initiative also seeks to give the nature centers a much needed boost in visitor numbers.

Mike Champagne, director at Seven Ponds Nature Center, said hosting field trips for elementary-aged kids is a long-held tradition at the Dryden facility but between the trend of children not getting outdoors and schools not being able to fund field trips like they used to, they've seen fewer youngsters come through the doors.

"Our field trip numbers peaked in 2002-2003 but we've been on the decline ever since," he said.

So far, it's been great to see more classes tromping through the woods since the program started, Champagne said.

Preschool through sixth grade is the typical age range. Seven Ponds offers two programs for each grade level, letting each teacher decide which one is best suited for his or her class. Champagne said the nature center works at "dove tailing" their curriculum with that of local school districts.

The two hours the students spend on-site is dominated by outdoor, hands-on activities, Champagne said.

"We've always had hands-on programs but since launching the new program we've revamped our curriculum to do that even more," he noted.

Endowment funds are also being used to launch a new Family Nature Day program.

Champagne said Seven Ponds will partner with Kingsbury School for the free, seasonable programs that aim to get parents and children outdoors.

This Saturday, Feb. 11, Seven Ponds invites families to stop by the center from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. for tracking, birdwatching and snowshoeing.

Plans are underway for future Nature Days that focus on wildflowers, pond dipping and more.

• • •

The Ondersma sisters moved to the United States in 1982 from the Netherlands after both had entered retirement, following their brother, Ray, and his family who had moved to the Capac area and begun farming.

Dora, the eldest, had been a teacher while Toos, who also went by Catharina, worked as a nurse.

Dr. Jim Sillers of Imlay City served as executor of their wills. The Ondersma sisters were longtime friends of the Sillers family and often guests at the veterinarian's home for holidays.

Sillers said they became acquainted when he sought out their help in transporting a dog overseas.

"I had some individuals from the Netherlands that wanted to purchase some of my dogs but to ship them as freight was extremely expensive," he recalls.

He was hoping to find a willing traveler who would take the animals as excess baggage, which was a much cheaper option.

"That's when someone told me there are two ladies who live on Fifth Street who have visitors from Europe often," Sillers said.

He went knocking on their door and the rest was history.

"I always enjoyed their company. They were two really nice ladies and we always had something to chat about," he said.

Of course, Sillers said he was happy when they approached him about leaving a gift to the Four County Community Foundation. Sillers is an emeritus foundation board member.

"They both valued people and their friendships over material things," Sillers said.

"They were always willing to help everyone in need.

The sisters were also very good stewards of what they had, he said.

"They lived frugally but at the same time, never really went without," Sillers recalls.

"They were the kind of people that saved every month regardless of what was happening the world at that time."

Timing also likely had something to do with it. With interest rates being what they were in the 1980s, Sillers said it didn't take long for a modest investment to multiply.

Sillers said he recommended that they create an unrestricted fund.

"The needs of a community can change over a period of time and with this kind of perpetual gift, who know what the needs will be 25 years from now," Sillers said.

But without a doubt, Sillers said he knows the sisters would be pleased that 'No Left Child Left Indoors' was one of the first programs their money was used for.

"They were both very health conscious and liked being outdoors," he said.

"Many people probably saw Catharina walking her dog several times a day in the streets of Imlay City."

Catharina passed away in January 2010. Dora preceded her in death some eight years prior.

• • •

For more information about the 'No Child Left Indoors' program, contact the Four County Community Foundation at 798-0909.

To learn more about upcoming Family Nature Days at Seven Ponds Nature Center, contact them at 796-3200.

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
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