Accept. Unite. Act. Those are the goals of the AUA Diversity Club at Byron Center High School, where district Superintendent Dan Takens recently shared how his grandparents embodied that mission during World War II.
Takens’ grandfather, Hittjo Takens, who lived in Stadskanaal, Netherlands, was active in the Dutch Resistance. The Takens family hid people at their home as the Nazis swept through the country rounding up Jews and people of other races and bringing them to concentration camps.
“They chose to risk their lives to help others,” Takens told club members during a recent meeting. He led students in a discussion on the importance of welcoming others despite their background, race or religion.
His grandfather’s story is documented in a March, 1947 Grand Rapids Press article. Hittjo Takens was chief of the area’s resistance movement the last two years of the war and for six months after V-E Day, which marked the end of the war’s European phase. “He and his group harbored and assisted in the escape of of several allied airmen, including an American fighter pilot from Los Angeles and several American bomber pilots and crew members,” the article states.
Hittjo Takens’ wife, Betty, cared for refugees and escapees at the house. Their children distributed underground newspapers and completed errands for their father.
Takens said he remembers asking his grandfather: “Why would you risk the lives of your family to help others?”
He recalls his grandfather’s response, delivered in a thick Dutch accent:”It was the right thing to do.” Although the cost was high, knowing the consequences the people he helped would otherwise face, he had to take action.
“I’m glad my grandfather made the choices he did,” Takens said. He credits his grandfather as a big influence in his life and commitment to live by The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Junior Halla Abu-Awad, co-president of the club, is from Jordan. She said she wants her classmates to consider other cultures and perspectives.
“I’d like to see our school be more diverse,” Halla said. “It’s important for people to know about other cultures and that there is more than what they know.
“I think it’s a very positive thing,” she added. “My goal is for our whole school to be a part of this club and for everyone to be more educated about diversity.”
English-language learner teacher Christy Tripp started the club five years ago.
“We really want to teach students, educate them, and expose them to different religions, ethnicities and ways of thinking,” Tripp said. “Because of the homogeneous population, I want to get them as much diversity training as possible.”
Said club member Kamrin Williams, who calls himselfan atheist, “We’re all human beings. We all matter. I hope that as not only kids in Byron Center but as citizens of America we welcome all walks of life.”
He said most students at Byron Center consider character above differences.
“Most people don’t agree with my beliefs here, but they accept me,” Kamrin said. “No one cares because I treat them with respect and I love everyone.”