A 'heart for kids' - Albuquerque Journal

A ‘heart for kids’

Jeff Van Klompenberg, a Detroit sports fan and University of New Mexico graduate, gives a hug to a sculpture of a seal at the ABQ BioPark Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Cosper)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Candice Griego lost her father in 2017 – when she was a junior at Sandia High School.

His death took a heavy toll on her, and her grief pushed her closer and closer to dropping out of school as the months went by. By fall of her senior year, she said she was ready to call it quits.

But then she met Jeff Van Klompenberg, her new world history teacher.

Remembering the loss she’d suffered almost a year before, Van Klompenberg was quick to offer Griego a safe place to cry, jokes to cheer her up and a reminder that life is what you make it.

“You’ve got to think on the bright side. Things happen for a reason,” he told Griego, now 22, one difficult day. “If you sit here and … be sad, you’re not going to get through it, you’re just going to be angry and upset the rest of your life.”

With the help of Van Klompenberg – “Mr. Van,” as Griego used to call him – she was able to make it through, graduating in 2019.

As Griego approached the stage at her graduation ceremony, ready to accept her diploma, Van Klompenberg approached her, tears welling in his eyes.

“Your dad would be really proud of you,” he told her. “You did it.”

After the ceremony ended, Griego and Van Klompenberg cried together outside Tingley Coliseum. Even though she was done with high school, Van Klompenberg told her he’d always be there if she needed him.

“I just held that with me every single day up until this point,” Griego said. “He was just my favorite person in the whole world.”

Van Klompenberg died in his sleep from long-standing health issues last Sunday, Sept. 11. He was 55.

‘Heart for kids’

If a student was in need, Van Klompenberg was the guy to go to.

A man who worked with special education students for almost 20 years at Sandia alone, Van Klompenberg came alive with the work he did, his older sister Cindy Cosper said.

Born in Michigan, Van Klompenberg moved with his family from Grandville to just outside Gallup when he was 4 years old. He graduated from Rehoboth Christian School and studied education at Dordt University. He got his master’s degree in special education from the University of New Mexico.

Although he had a sharp memory that suited his passion for history and news, school didn’t come easily to Van Klompenberg – he later found out he had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Cosper said.

While that meant he struggled with his own studies, it also meant he deeply related to the struggles many of his students faced.

“I think that gave him just the heart for kids who – it’s not that they don’t want to – it’s that it just doesn’t work as simply for them,” Cosper said. “He was never conventional, but I think he just connected at that heart level with the struggle, and so people knew that he had their back.”

“Jeff never lost what it felt like to be a kid,” she added.

Van Klompenberg was a “boisterous dude” with a hearty laugh that was part of his charm – defusing the tensest of situations with his quick, caustic sense of humor.

That helped make his classroom a safe haven for students like Griego, who kept visiting even in college. Others would call Van Klompenberg up to tell him about their lives and let him know how they’d carried forward some of the lessons he taught them.

From left, K.C. Smith, Alvin Alvarez and Jeff Van Klompenberg stand at a Fourth of July barbecue hosted by Van Klompenberg over ten years ago. After the barbecue, Smith said, Van Klompenberg and Smith’s family hiked up a hill behind Van Klompenberg’s home to watch fireworks. (Photo courtesy of Alvin Alvarez)

‘He put himself last’

No need went unmet under Van Klompenberg’s watch.

“There is nothing – nothing – that he wouldn’t do for anybody,” former colleague K.C. Smith said. “He put himself last. He always put everybody else first.”

His helping hand extended beyond the classroom to anyone in need – filming Sandia Matadors football games, helping coworkers with backyard landscaping projects and taking fledgling teachers under his wing.

Former Sandia teacher Alvin Alvarez was one of those teachers.

“He was my mentor and he was my best friend,” Alvarez said. “He helped mold the teacher I am today.”

Alvarez and Van Klompenberg shared a portable when Alvarez first started teaching. Only a door away, Alvarez would frequently pop into Van Klompenberg’s class to get feedback on his lesson plans, or debrief after situations with students.

Patience – and forming a thick skin – were chief among the sometimes mystifying lessons Van Klompenberg imparted on Alvarez.

“Q-tip,” Van Klompenberg once told him. “What does that mean?” Alvarez asked.

“Quit Taking It Personal,” Van Klompenberg replied. “It’s not about what the kid is telling you, it’s about how the kid is feeling at that time.”

Alvarez, who said he still works with at-risk students in Laredo, Texas, has carried that lesson on.

Outside of work, Van Klompenberg had a penchant for bonding with his coworkers’ children – Alvarez’s called him “Uncle Jeff” – and caring for his own family.

Van Klompenberg’s Taylor Ranch home was about 5 minutes from his parents’ and he made himself available for their every need in the final years of their lives, Cosper said – paying bills, running errands and chauffeuring them to family gatherings.

“Jeff was just such an honorable son,” she said.

He also lived for his dog, Chico.

A tiny Maltese he adopted from a neighbor when she moved into an assisted living facility, Cosper said Chico became like Van Klompenberg’s shadow, following him wherever he could and coming to life when he was around.

Now, Cosper said, the dog is with her son and his family, where he walks Van Klompenberg’s grand-nieces to the bus stop in the morning – bringing the same sort of warmth that Van Klompenberg dedicated to everyone who crossed his path.

“He just did a lot of great things, not just for me,” Griego said. “He could have done so much more.”

Van Klompenberg’s services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Fellowship Christian Reformed Church at 4800 Indian School NE. He is survived by his sisters: Cosper, Julie De Groot and Cheri Van Klompenberg, according to his obituary.

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