Contributed by Welmoet Spreij, Amsterdam, 2017.
I came to Nashville as a Dutch exchange-student in the fall of 1969 and took some classes at Vanderbilt University. While attending a course in philosophy, I came to know John Davis, Dick Burr, and Carolyn Keith. The next year, as they prepared to go to Appalachia for the first time, I learned about the Student Health Coalition. I returned to the Netherlands, but started to think about coming back to Tennessee. There were two attractions: a close relationship with John who has remained my very dear friend for many years; and a chance to work for the Student Health Coalition.
I became a member of the Student Health Coalition in the summer of 1971 and returned for a second summer in 1972. I obtained a US work permit by citing my experience with Montessori education and claiming that I could introduce Montessori techniques while working with children in Appalachia during the summer. Once I arrived in East Tennessee, however, I was asked at first to help out on the mobile health van. They were shorthanded because so many more people were showing up to get free physicals at the health fairs than anyone had expected. I quickly discovered, however, that drawing blood was not something I could stomach – which is ironic considering that I eventually became a nurse years later.
I was assigned to be a community worker instead, sent by the SHC to Clairfield, Tenn. My work was helping to run a summer program for the kids, offering interesting, educational, and fun activities. I first lived in the house of Marie Cirillo on Rose’s Creek. Later, I lived in the house of another woman who taught me how to quilt, although I never got very good at it. I still have the quilts that I bought in Appalachia so long ago.
Working for the Student Health Coalition changed my life. Back in the Netherlands, entering university, I first majored in Cultural Anthropology. I had experienced the USA culture as being so different from the Dutch Culture and the Appalachian culture was even more different from the Nashville Vanderbilt culture! I wondered: How does culture influence someone’s life (and health)? How can an individual influence a culture? Working in Appalachia with the SHC also led me to ask how an individual might change a health organization and the political and administrative system through which health care is delivered? Those were issues that guided my studies and perspective on life because of my experience with the SHC.
After my degree in Cultural Anthropology, I entered Nursing School. I didn’t only want to be an academic who is observing; I wanted to do something to help communities like those I had encountered in the Appalachian Mountains. I wanted to work for a better society, especially for people most in need.
I first worked as a nurse in a hospital and in elderly housing. Then I became director of a neighborhood healthcare center in a poor neighborhood in Amsterdam. I was also elected as a city councilor in Amsterdam, where I served for four years. The last 25 years, before my recent retirement, I worked as a policymaker for one of the City’s alderman on health issues: homeless people, youth care, preventive health care, community health care.
So, dear people of the Student Health Coalition, you really influenced my life in a very positive way. Thank you for it. The SHC showed me how you can make practical your dreams and desire for social change. This was a lifetime lesson. And I got a lifetime friend in Vermont, John Davis and his family, who have given me a fine excuse to visit your country every few years. I usually bring my bike, meet up with Dutch cycling companions, and explore a different section of the USA each time, biking hundreds of miles across a country that is still interesting and still very different than mine.