Social group sustains Dutch traditions

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While Oak Harbor’s annual Holland Happening celebrates Whidbey Island’s Dutch heritage the last weekend of April each year, the Holland-America Koffie Klets group celebrates that heritage all year round.

Founded in Sept., 2013 by longtime Holland Happening volunteer and Oak Harbor resident Jan Ellis, the group’s main focus is sharing good conversation, but around this time of year they put their Dutch heritage on display.

“We walk in the parade with our coffee cups and we have a booth at the street fair,” said Ellis. “We’ll also be selling Dutch licorice.”

Ellis, who is known for wearing traditional costumes from the province of Freesland, where her family is from, said she brought back 200 pounds of licorice on her last visit to her homeland, just for Holland Happening.
While that may be what the public will see this weekend, the group gets involved behind the scenes as well.

Members are on the committee that helps the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce with event planning. Several help with planning the community Dutch Dinner, which will be prepared by the Oak Harbor High School Culinary Arts team on Friday evening at the First Reformed Church. Koffie Klets members have provided recipes and guidance and will also help out the night of the event.

The rest of the year, however, members of the Koffie Klets group get together to swap stories, memories and good fun.

“We focus around Holland Happening time on the planning,” said Ellis. “Otherwise we get together and talk about news of what’s happening in Holland and we share stories.”

“It’s wonderful to hear the stories,” said Jennifer Adema, who belongs to the group with her husband, Dwight. “There are so many people on the island with a rich history.”

“For me, who grew up in a Dutch community, it brings all that culture back,” agreed Dwight.
Those story swaps have led to some interesting discoveries.

Koffie Klets members Marc DeLeeuwe and Gary Nienhuis both immigrated from Holland when they were young men. Years later, as part of the Holland-America Koffie Klets, they began comparing stories. First, they discovered they had both come to the United States in 1951. Further conversation revealed they had not only come over the same year, they had both been on the same ship. Yet they had never met before winding up around the same table in Oak Harbor.

Stories like that are what makes the group special for members.

“When you meet someone with the same last name, for instance, you can figure out where they came from and that somewhere down the line they’re connected,” said Ellis. “It’s fun to figure out those connections.”
The social aspect is what’s most important to most group members.

“They let me come,” joked Bud Leurin, who gets a ride to the monthly gathering from other members.
Pride in their heritage also means members are quick to squash any “rumors” that the Irish were actually the first to settle Oak Harbor.

“The Irish may have been the first settlers,” Gary Nienhuis said with a wink and a smile, “but the Dutch organized it.”

“It’s about sharing culture and keeping our traditions alive,” said Ellis, who may have been born in California, but didn’t speak a word of English until she started school.

“The province of Freesland maintained its own language and that’s what my parents spoke at home,” she explained.

The Holland-America Koffie Klets meets at 4 p.m. the fourth Thursday of the month at San Remo’s restaurant in Oak Harbor. There are about a dozen or so members who attend meetings regularly and there are another 30 people on the group’s mailing list. Anyone is welcome to attend, especially those who want to share their Dutch heritage.

“We really just encourage other people to come,” said Dee DeLeeuwe.

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