"I grew up in pretty humble circumstances, learning to swim at the local YMCA, playing in nearby parks and staying pretty close to home."
West Michigan-born and raised Carol Van Andel, the daughter of a minister and a homemaker, grew up on Grand Rapids' West Side, was educated in the city's Christian school system and initially wanted to become a nurse. After picking up information about the Butterworth School of Nursing program, she discussed it with her parents and followed her father's recommendation to earn her college degree first. She's a Kappa Kappa Gamma sister who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Business from Hope College, which she attended together with David Van Andel, whom she'd met in high school. The couple married at 23 and have four grown sons.
Faith is of utmost importance to Carol, serving as the compass for everything she does and powering the best advice she received, from Proverbs: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding."
"No one clearly comprehends the relationship between heaven and earth, and we may never," she said. "Sometimes, faith is all you can depend on." Carol and Dave were married only a year and a half when he was diagnosed with cancer, shifting her from newlywed to caregiver, further focusing that faith. The years have been kind, "but you don't forget."
Carol enjoys helping others and caring for people, reflecting her past study interest. "It's who I am, to a fault! I'm always thinking of someone I could help." Sometimes, it still gnaws at her: Should she attend nursing school? She ponders the idea—Dave is supportive—yet life keeps evolving and changing. The family recently welcomed their first grandchild. Carol beams when she mentions him. She also lights up when speaking of what inspires her to give of herself and to her community.
The word is in large, vibrant purple letters in Carol's office at Van Andel Institute, accurately dubbed Hope on the Hill. "Within these walls, hope is happening every day through the work of scientists and staff. I witness hope in our community, every day."
She's seen people grasping for hope and coming to the understanding that scientific research is paramount. "Without research, there is no cure!" VAI prides itself on the development of biomedical research and science education. "It's hope for the community: Great strides mean being closer to finding a cure, to helping people."
A leader in the worldwide fight against breast cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, VAI collaborates globally with institutes, medical facilities and foundations. "We're actively engaged in clinical trials for cancer and other maladies, holding promise for current and future generations. From humble beginnings more than 25 years ago, we've evolved into a powerful stronghouse for research and education."
VAI scientists look comprehensively at cancer from many angles, investigating how genetics and epigenetics contribute to it and individual cells' metabolisms fuel it. They participate in projects aimed at profiling and cataloging cancers on a larger scale, giving scientists worldwide valuable insight to better diagnose, categorize and treat these devastating diseases.
"Our work in breast cancer is a great example of these efforts. Our Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team is launching a clinical trial, being conducted at Indiana University, that will investigate a new combination of medications for triple-negative breast cancer and hormone-resistant/HER2-negative metastatic breast cancer."
Carol hopes, someday, we could eradicate all disease. "I don't know that it's out of reach; it's just going to take time. It isn't going to happen overnight."
VAI's signature Purple Community colors Carol's world. The institute's impact is evident locally through that grassroots effort designed to involve others in combating cancer and other diseases. "Our Purple Community engages in everything from bake sales to 5K runs to communitywide enterprises that invite all comers to create a visceral connection and honor those who've gone before us."
Carol extends hope through involvement with Van Andel Education Institute Advisory Council, Grand Rapids Public Museum Foundation, Western Theological Seminary and Hope College Board of Trustees, to which she was appointed in October 2019. She strives to create an impact—to improve our community and help it provide a better quality of life, so all children and families might have robust opportunities. She wants to do what's right for everyone. "It's rewarding to deliver a good product and serve others. Creating openings builds trust."
She indeed creates openings. Carol enjoys mentoring women who wonder where they fit and helping them try to find out. "Don't be shy," she said. "Summon your inner warrior! But be purposeful. Map out a vision of what you want to do and who or what you want to affect, then look for ways to become involved." Anyone who says they're bored and can't find enough to do, she notes, isn't looking hard enough.
"Service clubs and churches and foundations and schools and attractions like Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and museums and pantries and tons of organizations—they're screaming for volunteers. Visit websites. Make phone calls. Say yes!"
Family marks Carol's proudest accomplishment. "Serving as a wife and a mother are two of the greatest privileges a woman might have in her lifetime." Professionally, she's proud of serving alongside Dave at VAI, as someone trying to represent the affective side of its values and vision.
"While researchers and educators work the benches and the classrooms, I take joy in reaching out to embrace our community and the world at large by spearheading fundraisers and doing whatever I can to build awareness of the Institute's mission to literally alter the course of humanity."
Humanity flavors Carol's greatest lessons. "Give without any expectation of getting. It will surprise you, what you get. Some of the best things in life are unexpected. It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about the world." Carol firmly believes in altruism—that most people by nature will do the right thing. "Innately, people are good. You just have to give them chances to reveal it."
Carol enjoys West Michigan's work ethic and the people who make it go. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a city our size with the same amount of verve. That's demonstrated by an uncommon partnership between public and private sectors who work together for the common good."
Grand Rapids, she muses, was nearly dead in the early 1970s, when people abandoned downtown and flocked to the malls; today, it's home to nine downtown hotels within four square blocks. "When the rapids are back in place on the Grand River, we're going to see an explosion of development, at all levels. We're already on Top 10 lists for affordable housing, as a popular destination for millennials and for job growth.
Carol loves anything to do with the outdoors, including running and golfing. She believes in the power of lifelong fitness and tries to devote part of each day to it. She ran hurdles and was a powderpuff football running back in high school. She loves to read: It's the first thing she does in the morning and a favorite way to relax. She also scuba dives—something her whole family enjoys. With its beautiful underwater colors, the British Virgin Islands are a favored location.
Carol sees the good in others and contemplates how others see her.
"I'm a people person and I hope that makes me approachable. I will admit to being our family's disciplinarian, but kids look for that. Our sons' friends call me the "fun mom" and I relish that role. My husband calls me Mrs. Tuohy, after the mom in The Blindside. It's the story of NFL player Michael Oher and the family that adopted him and got him through some tough times.
"Don't mess with Mrs. Tuohy!"
Creating hope. Spreading joy. Caring for others.
That's the core of Carol.
Written by Amy L Charles, Editorial Director for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the October/November issue of West Michigan Woman.
Photos couretesy of Kelly Braman Photography.