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Elim: A History of Chicago's Christian School for Children with Disabilities

Robert P. Swierenga


John Kamp

"Mr. Elim"

Christian Educator, Scholar, Visionary

In Appreciation

Elim parent and Illinois State Representative Lee A. Daniels

In recognition of his support and efforts on behalf of Elim Christian Services






Chapter 1 Beginnings

Chapter 2 William Kok and John Kamp: The Dynamic Duo

Chapter 3 Elim Goes National

Chapter 4 Administration

Chapter 5 Mission Creep and New Challenges: The 1960s

Chapter 6 Mission Change: Elim in the 1970s

Chapter 7 Beginning of Bethshan

Chapter 8 Elim Christian School Foundation

Chapter 9 Transition at the Top: The Early 1980s

Chapter 10 Difficult Times: The De Jager Years, 1986-1988

Chapter 11 The George Groen Era, 1989-2000

Chapter 12 Extracurricular Activities

Chapter 13 The Bill Lodewyk Era Begins




Shortly after publishing my book, Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City (2002), Heidi (Mrs. Peter H.) Huizenga, then president of the board of Elim Christian Services (formerly Elim Christian School), took me on a tour of the campus and adult services building. I have long admired this special place on which the Dutch Reformed Christians in Chicago and throughout North America had lavished so much love and affection. With two mentally challenged sons of my own, I can appreciate the essential role this institution plays in the lives of the students and their families. Seeing Elim up close and meeting the executive director, William Lodewyk, and other staff members confirmed my high esteem for this remarkable institution. Its Christ-centered instruction has enabled thousands of youngsters to cope with and even surmount their disabilities. Elim is a place that is close to my heart. So when Heidi asked me to write a history of Elim, I readily accepted. The institution celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1998, and the time seems right to tell the story, before all the pioneers enter their eternal reward. May Elim's story inspire you as it has me.


"Many hands make light work," the adage goes. I am indebted to Elim Christian Services' executive director, William Lodewyk, who gave me full access to the official records, documents, publications, and photo collection. Dr. Richard Harms, director of the Calvin College Archives, provided access to the Elim Executive Board minutes on microfilm in the Archives. Postma made available the minutes of the Women's Service League Board, and Rose Van Reken provided materials relating to the Board of Trustees and Key Ladies. Brian Boss and John Kamp provided the information for Richard Boomker to design maps of the campus (Fig. 1.2) and the buildings (Fig. 1.3). Dan Vander Plaats of Elim's advancement staff helped gather and scan many of the photographs. Sharon Stremple and Lorye Postma of the office staff gathered additional materials for my use. Originals of all records, documents, publications, and photographs are in the archives of Elim Christian Services, unless noted otherwise. Copies of board minutes and other documents can also be consulted at the libraries of Calvin College and Trinity Christian College.

For reading the manuscript and giving me the benefit of their knowledge, I am indebted to executive directors John Kamp, George Groen, and William Lodewyk; board presidents Rose Van Reken, Frederick Wezeman, and Heidi Huizenga; staff member Jake De Lange; Dean and Ruth De Jong Koldenhoven; and Elim Foundation director Peter Huizenga. Gordon De Young, a Chicagoan by birth and retired Baker Book House editor, applied his sharp editorial pencil to good effect, as did Lodewyk and Groen. Kamp encouraged me from the outset, carefully read each draft, and suggested names of participants for me to interview. His vivid recollection of persons and events is remarkable, given the passing of many years.

In the production of the book, Russell Gasero, archivist of the Reformed Church in America, prepared page proofs and positioned the many illustrations, as he does so ably. The Reverend Dr. Donald Bruggink, editor of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, and copy editor Laurie Baron shepherded the manuscript through the production and editorial processes. Timothy Ellens designed the cover in his creative and imaginative way.

Peter and Heidi Huizenga provided a generous publication subsidy. Heidi also assisted in securing "action" photographs. I am grateful to the Huizenga family for their commitment to keeping alive our Reformed heritage and the educational institutions nurtured by that tradition.

Map of greater Chicago showing Elim Christian School

1.2 Elim site acquisitions, 1950-1983

1.3 Buildings on Elim's campus, 1950-2001

6.1 Financial "pie charts," 1955 and 1975

11.1 Elim Foundation assets 1981-2000


Elim Christian School began in 1948 as the Chicago Christian School for Handicapped Children, with the intent to provide for children with both mental and physical disabilities. At first the school only served the mentally "handicapped"slow learners and brain-damaged childrenbecause of a lack of trained teachers and facilities for the deaf, blind, and lame. At that time, there were only four qualified special educators in the entire Reformed and Christian Reformed denominations. And no other agency in Reformed circles existed to train and care for handicapped children. This was the dark ages for the disabled. The Children's Retreat and Training School at Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Hospital in Cutlerville, Michigan, did not open until five years later, in 1953. Public schools accepted some physically disabled students, but not the mentally deficient. Elim was thus the first Reformed Christian school of its kind in the United States, and the Dutch Reformed people of the Chicago area can be justly proud of being pioneers in this newly emerging field of special education. [1]

Elim Christian School has always served children with developmental deficiencies from the greater Chicago area. But it also created programs for the physically handicapped that drew students from across the country. Elim's teachers developed innovative techniques to educate children of normal intelligence but with physical disabilities. This specialization became Elim's claim to fame.

Everything changed in the late 1960s, under the impact of new federal and state education mandates for special education in 1968. This was followed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, which guaranteed equal education to all children. The laws came with some funding, but public schools, required for the first time to serve the lowest functioning pupils, were overwhelmed by the new entitlement and responded reluctantly. Even with the prodding and generous funding, for many years they fell short of the standards of Christian schools.

Illinois state officials, long influenced by Catholic church leaders in Chicago, turned to private Christian schools, like Elim and nearby Colletta Catholic School, to meet the needs, quashing any qualms about mixing public dollars and religion. Elim and the other private schools responded. Over time, Elim enrolled more mentally deficient students funded by public tuition dollars and fewer private-pay, physically disabled students, who often excelled in academics. As a result, the famed deaf-oral class had to close in the early 1990s, to be replaced by the Discovery Center programs in local and national schools affiliated with Christian Schools International (CSI). Shifting needs and government directives thus changed the educational complexion of Elim over the decades. But the Christian emphasis has remained.

Elim could only have happened in the Chicago area, where Reformed Christians gave birth to the school, took it to their hearts, and supported it at great sacrifice. From the start Elim was a parent-run "free school," i.e., free of control by church or state, under the Calvinistic world-and-life-view espoused by their Netherlandic forebears. Elim's educational philosophy for the first four decades was explicitly Reformed, and based on the Three Forms of Unity (the creedal base of the Reformed and Christian Reformed churches): the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism.

In 1988 the mission statement was revised substantially to meet federal anti-discriminatory guidelines for admission, so as to ensure continued public funding. Elim then stated explicitly what had been policy for years, that it would accept children "regardless of race, creed, sex, or national origin." The overt Reformed doctrinal base of the 1948 constitution was softened to read that Elim's education "is carried out within the context of the Christian faith." But the Calvinistic principle of "God's sovereignty in all of life" was reaffirmed, as was the ideal of helping each student to find his or her unique place in the "plan of God" as a valued and loved individual.

[sidebar: Purpose

From Elim Christian School booklet, 1976:

The purpose of Elim Christian School is to provide special education for children who by reason of mental or physical handicap are unable to benefit from regular instruction given in schools for normal children.

Elim achieves this purpose by providing the necessary staff, facilities, and resources to carry on quality programs, including the day school, sheltered workshop, and dormitories for residential care.

Elim accepts children regardless of race, creed, sex, or national origin. However, the education of these exceptional children is carried out within the context of the Christian faith. The Board of Trustees, administration, and staff affirm God's sovereignty in all of life and recognize their corporate and individual responsibility as stewards of God's kingdom. Each child, according to his or her abilities, is taught his or her place in the plan of God as a valued and loved individual. Each is expected to develop his or her potential and to participate to the appropriate degree in the school, in the church, and in society. ]

Until the 1940s special needs children commonly had been ignored out of ignorance or shame, and parents often kept them behind closed doors for their entire lives. No Dutch Reformed school in the Chicago area accepted "retarded" pupils. Christian teachers, like their secular counterparts, were not trained to educate youngsters who fell outside the "norm," and Christian school societies could not justify the huge costs of serving this population.

This had to change. In the years after the Second World War, it became increasingly apparent to Christian school advocates in Chicago that a special school was needed for mentally retarded youngsters. One Christian Reformed Church family in particular demanded such services. They had a son with Down's Syndrome and refused to take no for an answer when the local Christian school refused to enroll him. This family had a major advantage. The father was a Christian Reformed pastor and one of the most highly esteemed men in the community. His wife was a former Christian schoolteacher and leader of the Reformed Young Women's Societies in the city who had tried home schooling her son but saw the need for a long-term solution together they had clout. They would find a way to begin a school, even if they had to recruit a teacher themselves and use the church basement as a classroom.

The father was the Reverend Dr. William Masselink, pastor of the Second Christian Reformed Church in Englewood (known popularly as the "72nd Street Church"), the mother was his wife, Mary, and the son was Paul, their third and youngest child. The Masselinks and three other families with special needs children appealed to the Englewood Christian School to establish an educational program for them in the underused school basement. The parents were hopeful, because eleven years earlier, in 1936, the school under principal Klaas Hoeksema had created special classes in reading and arithmetic for "backward" children. [2]

[The Reverend Dr. William Masselink (1897-1973), founder of the Chicago Christian School for Handicapped Children, and Mrs. Mary Masselink (1901-1976), the first teacher]

[son Paul Masselink (1938-1995), one of Elims first students]


William and Mary Masselink had three childrenEdna, William, and Paul. The academic credentials of William Masselink (1897-1973) are notable. He received a diploma from Grundy College (1918), earned a Th.M. degree at Princeton Seminary (1919), attended the Chicago Divinity School in 1920, and then completed two doctoratesthe first a Ph.D. degree from Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky (1921), and the second, a Th.D. degree from the Free University of Amsterdam (1937). In 1942, after serving the Second Christian Reformed Church in Englewood for ten years, he joined the faculty of the Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids and taught until he retired in 1963.

Source: Richard Harms, comp. and ed., Historical Directory of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (Grand Rapids: 2004), 276.]

But in 1947 the board thought otherwise. The Depression era crisis of 1936, when every tuition dollar was needed, had long passed. The post-war era brought record enrollments, and the bottom line dictated that a class for a few pupils was too costly. A few parents also objected to "mixing" special and "normal" children, and these parents as members of the school society had a vote on major administrative decisions at the annual society meetings.

To be fair, Englewood Christian School's admissions policy meshed with that of the National Union of Christian Schools (NUCS), based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of which it was an affiliate. The NUSC (now CSI) was the nationwide Dutch Reformed educational system. Only one NUCS school, Oakdale Christian School in Grand Rapids, had a learning-disabled class. Oakdale Christian was progressive in Dutch Reformed circles, but it was not in the vanguard among other church-related institutions. Roman Catholic and Lutheran parochial schools already had begun special education programs, as had various private schools.

Youngsters with physical limitations, including those with orthopedic devices and hearing and visual impairments, were "educable" and thus fared better than the mentally deficient. Although school administrators for financial reasons routinely excused the physically impaired from mandatory attendance rules, yet some large city systems created special programs. And state departments of education opened institutions for the blind or the deaf, complete with dormitory housing. But these public institutions could not provide a Christian education.

The Masselinks and allied parents would not be deterred. During the winter of 1946-1947, under their persistent prodding, the Christian School Association of Chicago took the first steps to educate this neglected population. Its policy arm, the Educational Committee of the Chicagoland Christian Schools, convened a meeting of all the local school boards, which went on record favoring the creation of a school for special children, under the auspices of the Englewood Christian School Board.

With some trepidation, the Englewood School Board accepted the assignment, "provided a real need exists and provided that this project receives the hearty endorsement of the other Chicagoland Christian Schools." To determine the first condition, board secretary Arnold Weidenaar sent out a general letter asking parents of "handicapped and severely retarded children" to inform him of their children's handicaps and educational needs.[3] Their responses proved that a real need existed. So the Educational Committee asked Englewood principal Walter "Wally" De Jong to help inaugurate the school as an experimental project. He agreed but, tellingly, the special school was entirely independent and classes were set up "off campus."

[Letter from the Englewood Christian School board, Arnold Weidenaar, secretary, April 3, 1947, that launched the Chicago Christian School for Handicapped Children]

While the Masselinks were the main instigators of the school, the Reverend William "Bill" Kok, pastor of the nearby First Christian Reformed Church in Englewood (known popularly as the "71st Street Church"), gave forceful and effective leadership in the seminal years and deserves accolades as the true "father of Elim." Many a time, when the board wrestled into the night with late payrolls due to lack of funds, President Kok admonished the body "to move forward in faith, the Lord will provide." Even the name "Elim" was Kok's idea. Elim was the biblical oasis in the Sinai Peninsula desert where the children of Israel rested on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. "Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there" (Exod. 15:27). This lush locale fit well with Elim's image as a place of mercy. And the heart of a palm tree is alive, while the hearts of ordinary trees are dead.[4] An Elim publication many years later featured school photos with Bible texts for twelve wellsof love, mercy, kindness, fortitude, meekness, cheerfulness, sympathy, friendliness, patience, hope, humility, and faith.[5]

[Palm tree motif]


The Reverend William Kok was pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Englewood from 1942 to 1953. He was born in Amsterdam in 1892 and came to Grand Rapids with his parents in 1908. While teaching in the Randolph, Wisconsin, Christian School, he met and married Effie Vander Zon, and the couple had five children. Kok graduated from Calvin Seminary in 1924 and served churches in Iowa and Michigan for sixteen years before becoming an assistant to the president of Calvin College for two years (1940-42). Kok was elected a delegate to the General Synod eight times, and served on key synodical agencies, including the Calvin College Board of Trustees, the Back to God Hour, and Home Missions. He died in Grand Rapids in 1977 at the ripe age of eighty-four ("Obituary," Banner, July 22, 1977). His colleague and friend, Dr. William Rutgers, who wrote Kok's obituary, noted that "Christian education flourished under his preaching." Rutgers added: "One never had to guess or ask where Kok stood on the critical issues [being] debated. He never hedged in speaking his convictions, nor did he lack the courage when that was imperative and meaningful. He did not fear the scars in the battle for the faith once delivered."

The Reverend William Kok (1892-1977), "the father of Elim" (The Archives, Calvin College)

End sidebar]

As important as Kok's role was as Elim's key originator and guiding star, teacher/administrator John Kamp was truly "Mr. Elim." For thirty-five years (1950-85), Kamp directed the school from infancy to maturity and elevated it to one of the finest examples of its kind in North America. His critical role is highlighted in the following chapters.

Elim's special ministry quickly won the hearts of the Chicago-area Dutch Reformed churches. And from this simple beginning sprang a full-fledged Christian school for developmentally challenged youngsters, along with an adult workshop and residential services. The residences were needed to serve children living beyond commuting distance, and the workshop was necessary to provide lifetime employment for graduates of the school program. It also employed adults from outside the greater metropolitan area.

Elim Christian School was the first within the vaunted Christian Reformed educational system nationwide to provide explicitly Christian instruction for children with developmental and physical limitations. It is the predecessor of such institutions as the Children's Retreat and Training School in Grand Rapids. But unlike the Children's Retreat, with its large residential building for noneducable youngsters, Elim ran a day school for educable students with mental and physical challenges; it did not institutionalize them. From 1953 on, Elim was careful not to invade the domain of the Children's Retreat; it referred all noneducable youngsters outside of Chicago to the Michigan institution.

Elim grew rapidly by riding the crest of the wave of special education consciousness in the 1950s. Chicago's Reformed community pioneered in supporting special education for covenant children long before the U.S. Congress passed House Bill 1407 in 1968, which made such education mandatory in the public schools.

Some 225 teachers and 850 full-time staff members have served Elim since 1948, and they are as special as the students. They needed the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon in the classroom and in the dormitories. Effective ways to educate blind and deaf children were just being developed, and the Elim staff had to scour the nation for innovative technologies and methods, such as voice stimulators and leg and hip whirlpools. Then they had to adapt the machines to their students' needs. There were few training manuals to follow; they experimented and refined as necessary, often flying by the seat of their pants.

Ultimately, the story of Elim is the story of its 5,000 students and the physical and mental challenges they met to reach their full potential, under the loving tutelage of a dedicated staff of teachers, administrators, and care givers. When given an opportunity to testify about what they learned at Elim, the students would reply: "It's okay to be differentwe're all the same to God." With that attitude, these youngsters have conquered mountains.[6]

Today Elim is the only residential Christian school in North America ministering to children of Dutch Reformed families. And it is more than an oasis. "To say that Elim is an oasis is a gross understatement," declared executive director George Groen and board president Henry Kamp in 1994. "It is a haven in the midst of a flawed and dysfunctional society where obscenity is near the norm."[7]



[1]. John Kamp, "The End of Special Education" Banner, Sept. 1, 1978.

[2]. Robert P. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 391; "Mrs. William Masselink," Banner, Sept. 29, 1950, 1175.

[3]. Letter, Englewood School Board, Arnold Weidenaar, to "Dear Friends of Christian Instruction," April 3, 1947, Elim Archives.

[4]. John L. Shaver, "The Churches of Chicago North," Banner, May 20, 1949, 84; "Director's Report," Elim Annual Report, Oct. 9, 1969; George Groen's remarks, Waterfront, Apr. 1994.

[5]. Elim Events, Apr. 1969.

[6]. Women's Service League Board minutes, Mar. 20, 1991.

[7]. 44th Annual Society Report, 1991; 46th Annual Society Report, 1994.