Van Aartsens find joy, purpose in volunteering

Julie Buntjer, The Daily Globe, Worthington, Minn.
·5 min read

Apr. 4—LUVERNE — For Darrel and LaDonna VanAartsen of rural Luverne, volunteering time in their community is something they both feel strongly about. The couple logs lots of hours each year for the betterment of community sites like the historic Palace Theatre and the Rock County Historical Society, as well as supporting local youth through the American Reformed Church.

High school sweethearts who married two years after graduation, Darrel operates his own construction company and teaches woodworking classes part-time at Luverne High School, while LaDonna is assistant vice president and operations manager for Farmers & Merchants National Bank in Luverne.

Both jobs lend themselves to community volunteerism.

"Being in the bank lets me see many opportunities in the community for volunteering," shared LaDonna, who has worked in banking for more than 40 years. She spoke of a former bank president, Don Cashin, who was very community-minded and instilled those values in his employees.

"We always felt very proud to go into the community and volunteer and be part of organizations," she said. "He encouraged us to get involved in something we love and feel passionate about."

The couple's earliest volunteerism was in the church, where they have led the senior high youth program for more than 30 years.

"Our youth is really important to us," LaDonna shared, noting the group's 43 youth members and eight volunteers who meet each week.

Four years ago, the American Reformed Church youth group banded together with other church youth groups across Rock County to form Rock the Edge, a Service-Over-Self youth group that concentrates on doing missions work within Rock County. Since 2018, the youths have gathered together for a week of projects and praise, doing everything from painting and washing windows to cleaning gutters and building small projects.

"Last year was the first year Darrel and I took the week off and volunteered for the whole week," LaDonna shared. "Darrel's group built a shelter house at the trailer court. The year before, they built a sandbox at the trailer court."

This year's event is planned for the third week in June, and volunteer organizers are in the process of developing a list of projects.

Supporting the arts

When the Palace Theatre in Luverne came into public hands and the Blue Mound Area Theatre (BMAT) board of directors was established, both LaDonna and Darrel became involved.

"Darrel and I are pretty much teammates — when one of us joins a board, the other jumps in to help," LaDonna shared. "It was a lot to get this up and running."

Initially, Darrel helped to make some necessary repairs to the historic building. Then, when a major remodel began in 2007, he was tapped for the job.

"We continue to volunteer here as much as we can," LaDonna said. As treasurer of BMAT, she ensures the licensing is done with the city and state, and pursues any available grant sources to sustain the theatre. It was especially important during the COVID-19 global pandemic, when the Palace wasn't able to be open.

"We're going to try to reopen the first weekend after Easter," she said. "The problem is there aren't any new movies out there because Hollywood shut down, too, or went to live streaming."

The theatre operates solely on volunteerism from its 15-member board of directors and their spouses, students in the peer helping class at Luverne High School and 50 community volunteers that can be called upon. They do everything from ticket sales and concessions work to booking events, ordering and showing movies, purchasing supplies and handling mailings.

"A lot of the little things you don't even think about, like 'Did the lights get turned on early?' or 'Is the popcorn started?'" shared Darrel.

"Our goal is to promote the arts and just to get people in here," added LaDonna. "It really helps to get the high school kids in here. In the fall of 2019, Darrel's students constructed the sets for a play. Then he gave them a tour and passed on that history. It gets them to want to be involved in it too."

Preserving history

For the past decade, Darrel has volunteered with the Rock County Historical Society, whose buildings include The History Center, the Hinkly House and the barn at the Rock County Fairgrounds.

Darrel was involved significantly with the renovations to the former Herman Motors building on Main Street, which was transformed into The History Center.

"It's a great location for The History Center to be at," he said.

In addition to keeping the buildings maintained, Darrel — and LaDonna, too — enjoy sharing the history of the community with others.

"It seems like the older we get, the more precious that becomes," LaDonna shared. "During the pandemic, we took our youth group to the Hinkly House. We also went to the courthouse and looked at it, and talked about where the red brick came from."

Passion for service

While volunteering in their community, the VanAartsens are also working to inspire the next generation of volunteers.

"I just think it's so important that people volunteer in their community," LaDonna said. "I think sometimes if you can share your passion with the next generation, some of them might find that passion, too."

Darrel shared a saying he'd seen several years ago that reads: "Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day for the kind of community you want to live in."

What they tell people is to find something they are passionate about and find a way to share that passion for the betterment of the community.

It doesn't need to be volunteering on a board for 10 or 20 years — it could be as simple as doing something for someone in need in the community, Darrel shared.

"When people look at retiring, I say, 'You need to go and volunteer. You meet so many great people,'" added LaDonna.

The VanAartsens have three sons, all of whom grew up watching their parents volunteer and now do the same in their communities. Their son, Mark, and his wife, Katie, have one son and live in Luverne, and Mark works in construction with his dad. Their oldest son, Brent, resides in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with his wife and two children, and runs the information technology department at Dakota State University in Madison. Meanwhile, son Jon is single and works as an engineer at Daktronics in Brookings, South Dakota.