Pieter Vos was an agriculturist, missionary, and lay preacher who immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1950, after serving for four years in Surinam, a dutch colony in South America at the time. While both he and Johanna Stoffels, a nurse, were living in Surinam and working at the Salvation Army, they met and then married.
Upon their arrival in Canada, Pieter worked on a farm near Linwood, Ontario. As they settled into life in Canada they moved to Kitchener, Ontario, where Pieter and Johanna Vos bought a home. When they had just managed to pay off the house, Pieter read in a newspaper about a great need in the community – to help people living with disabilities. They set out to make a difference, but didn’t know where to start other than the newspaper article.
That newspaper article led them to a Dutch couple who operated a small home for children living with disabilities outside of Bellville, Ontario. The Vos’ arranged to meet this couple at their home and were immediately invigorated. In Pieter Vos’ own words, “I asked Johanna what she thought about it all. There was no need to ask; I could tell by her eyes that the children had won her heart as well!”
The homeowners asked Johanna to care for the children at the house, as she was a nurse, while they went home to Holland. Johanna went and took on the responsibility of care of the children for six weeks.
With this experience, Pieter and Johanna redecorated and prepped their home’s reconstructed garage for their own childrens’ home. In 1956, Pieter and Johanna Vos were referred their first child with a developmental disability, “David”, through the Toronto Children’s Aid Society. Within a few months, they had renovated their own bedroom and were caring for 20 young children. After purchasing a larger house on Willow Street in Waterloo, they soon were caring for 40 children. As requests continued, a second building on the same property was purchased, and an additional 20 children were taken into their care.
Dutch immigrants were the vast majority of the staff at the time. Many parents sent their daughters to Canada after hearing a radio broadcast years before that Pieter Vos had put together to support Dutch families who were affected by a large flood. Johanna was then tasked with being a mother to her own biological children, the children who lived in the house, and the young girls on staff. She became affectionately known as “Mama Vos”. On occasion a social worker would place a young girl on probation working at Sunbeam Home, rather than sending her to a reform school. Pieter said, “Johanna, like a mother, gave herself to the staff, who in turn, gave themselves, knowing they were loved.”
By 1964, Sunbeam Home included properties in Doon and Conestoga, as well as Waterloo, and provided care for 145 people. In 1966, it became a non profit corporation, run by a Board of Directors with Mr. Vos acting as Administrator. In order to amalgamate all the residences into one facility, the board of directors purchased the current premises at 2749 Kingsway Drive in Kitchener. In 1972, all residents and administration moved into the current facility.
Pieter Vos said of Sunbeam Home staff, “[i]t was very important to us to have those who had a loveable spirit and a cool head. For the children required, above all else, a lot of love, for that is what they thrived on.” It is with this attitude, that Sunbeam Centre continues its work today. Pieter and Johanna Vos are considered pioneers in the field of developmental care, and we thank them for their legacy.