Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement


DeVos, Helen

By Jennifer Morrison (MI-Stories.com)

S.O.U.L. of Philanthropy

Biographical Highlights

Helen DeVos was raised during the Great Depression. Her parents were educators, and she lived in a household where music and Christian tenets were valued. Helen DeVos’s childhood remained an influence to her after she married Richard DeVos. His success in business enabled the couple to give back considerably to their community of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has been a major benefactor of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Grand Rapids Christian Schools, and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Historic Roots

Helen DeVos was born as Helen Van Wesep. Her parents were both school teachers, and her father, George, became principal of Oakdale Christian school. Both her parents were very involved at the school and at their church. Helen was born in Grand Rapids in 1927, an only child, and attended Oakdale Christian School, Grand Rapids Christian High School, and Calvin College. She worked briefly as a substitute teacher before marrying.

She married Richard DeVos in 1953 and started a family soon after. The couple has four children—Dick, Daniel, Cheri and Doug—all of whom are also active philanthropists in Grand Rapids. Dick (Richard, Jr.) ran for governor of Michigan in 2006, but he was defeated by the incumbent governor, Jennifer Granholm.

Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel launched Amway in 1959. The name Amway is a contraction of “American Way.” DeVos and Van Andel eventually became multi-billionaires through the success of the company, and their families have given back generously to the community.

Importance

Both Helen and Richard were raised in a strong Christian tradition that included the custom of tithing, and it was a part of their marriage since the beginning. Helen’s love of classical music in particular encouraged the couple’s interest in the symphony. This led to the development of what became the DeVos Performance Hall that opened in 1980. Together they received the Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids in 1978, and they continue to support the symphony. In 2002, they gave a five million dollar gift to the symphony foundation.

Because of Helen’s love for children, she gave a major gift toward programs for women and children at Butterworth Hospital in 1990. As a result, the Helen DeVos Women and Children’s Medical Center was named for her. The new Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is now set to open in 2010.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Having played the piano since childhood, Helen was a lover of classical music. She served on the Symphony board from 1971 to 1991, and they honored her with a lifetime achievement award at a special performance in 2007. She and her husband provided the lead gift towards the Grand Rapids performance hall that opened in 1980 and was named in their honor. Helen also served on the board of St. Cecilia Music Society.

The DeVoses together have given millions of dollars to cultural, educational, and medical institutions, especially in Grand Rapids. They have been generous towards Grand Rapids’ Christian schools where they themselves were educated. In 1990, Rich and Helen gave five million dollars to Butterworth Hospital (now Spectrum Health) to fund programs for women and children. The hospital used the money to open the Helen DeVos Women and Children’s Medical Center in 1993. In 2005, the hospital planned a new and expanded facility for children. In 2006, the four DeVos children pledged fifty million dollars toward the project. Ground was broken that same year and completion is planned for 2010. The Grand Rapids children’s hospital will be named for Helen DeVos.

Key Related Ideas

Helen DeVos grew up in Grand Rapids during the Great Depression. Her parents were educators and she attended Christian schools. She has had a love of music since childhood and a strong Christian background. In 1953, she married Richard DeVos, the cofounder of Amway, and the couple eventually became billionaires. Always a couple who tithed, they then became philanthropists giving to a wide variety of community causes. Helen is especially associated with the institution that bears her name, The Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, as well as the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Christian schools.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Dick DeVos: Richard, Jr. is the son of Helen and Richard DeVos. Dick DeVos spearheaded Grand Vision and then, with Canepa and David Frey, formed Grand Action. Dick DeVos served as CEO of Amway and ran for governor of Michigan in 2006.
  • Richard DeVos:  Richard DeVos is the cofounder of Amway with Jay Van Andel. Also born and raised in Grand Rapids, Rich DeVos met Helen in the Christian school and they married in 1953. The couple have been partners in philanthropy since then. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation formed in 1970.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Grand Rapids Christian Schools is an independent, non-profit preschool through twelfth grade system dedicated to educating students in a faith-based environment.  (http://www.grcs.org)  The DeVos Center for Arts and Worship at Grand Rapids Christian High School is a 1,205 seat auditorium serving students and the community. (http://www.dcaw.org)
  • The Grand Rapids Symphony was officially organized in 1930 and is recognized as one of America’s leading regional orchestras.  Eight concert series and extensive education and community service programs are provided to the community with performances designed for young children through adults, featuring a wide range of repertoire.   The Symphony sponsors the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra, and also provides the orchestra for Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet Company.  (http://www.grsymphony.org)
  • St. Cecilia Music Society was established in 1883 and promotes the appreciation, study and performance of music in order to enrich the human spirit and enhance the quality of life for the residents of West Michigan. (http://www.scmsonline.org/Brix?pageID=1)

Related Web Sites

  • Amway Corporation: Read about the business DeVos founded at http://www.amway.com/ . Especially interesting is a history section and other relevant background under “Who We Are.”
  • DeVos Performance Hall: This website at http://www.devosperformancehall.com/ provides information about Grand Rapids Symphony and other concerts at DeVos Hall.
  • Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital: Find extensive information about children’s hospital services and construction plans at http://www.devoschildrens.org/.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Clipping file and oral history in the SOUL of Philanthropy collection in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections of the Grand Rapids Public Library