By Jill Tham
Photo by G3 Designs
One night, while camping out under the clear African sky, listening to hippopotami bellowing in a nearby swamp and feeling overcome by the unparalleled surroundings, Ted van der Zalm prayed, “Please Lord help me find someone to share this life with, so in our old age we can reminisce about our days in Africa.” His prayers were answered ten fold.
Ted and Miriam van der Zalm met in 1987, working at a mission in Tanzania, Africa. Ted was digging wells to provide clean drinking water while Miriam taught life skills to women in villages. Their professional relationship progressed into friendship. “Our work took us different directions, so our paths didn’t cross all the time,” Ted states.
When Ted and Miriam’s paths did cross, Ted made every attempt to impress Miriam. “One night, Ted was driving us back from one of the clinics, when the main road was flooded by a rushing river – one of the rainy seasons’ special gifts. He thought he could pass through the gushing water, but instead he flooded the engine of the truck and we had to wait for someone from the mission to come and help us. While waiting, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the road, in the middle of Africa, Ted kissed me,” says Miriam.
A few months later, Miriam felt her help was more needed in the village of Heka, instead of her mission post in the town of Manyoni, so she left on a personal journey of discovery without telling anyone. “I left before dawn and arrived after sunset. I needed to sort things out in my head. Even though I knew the road well, it was by no means a safe thing to do, walking all by myself in a wild country. I got lots of people worried. No accounting for the foolishness of youth!” says Miriam. Upon realizing she was gone, Ted hopped in his bush plane and began flying over the villages to find her. “I heard his plane and hid,” Miriam recalls. “The next day he returned in a car to get me. You could say that long drive back was our first date.” It was evident that Ted cared deeply for Miriam.
Despite their closeness, Ted and Miriam were often separated for extended periods of time. While on a nine-hour layover in the Amsterdam airport, Ted looked up from his novel and saw a poster of a large diamond hanging in a jewelry store window. With his next layover scheduled near Miriam’s village in Vallecorsa, Italy, he interpreted the jewelry story poster as a sign. Having no money in his pocket and traveling with only an emergency credit card from the church, he knew what he had to do. This was an emergency.
Ted and Miriam were married in St. Catharines on December 30, 1989. Ted began teaching Religion for the Niagara Catholic District School Board and they started a family. As their children grew, they played soccer, took music lessons, and the family vacationed together in cottage country. Life was good.
Then in 2004, Ted and Miriam were asked to use their considerable experience to assist Guatemalans who were growing ill and dying from lack of clean drinking water. The couple decided to leave Ontario and start the Wells of Hope program in Guatemala. “Ted was all in from the moment the group of Guatemalans came to ask us to dig wells,” recalls Miriam. “It took me a while to get used to the idea; we went in blind to the dangers. Our youngest was just 18 months old, he had constant diarrhea and vomiting. With no running water or washing machine it was challenging.”
The van der Zalm family lived in tents for six months, traveling around Guatemala determining the need for water amongst the poor. Ted recalls, “One night we were all sick in the tent. Only a few of us made it to the zipper to vomit outside.”
The Wells of Hope program has evolved a great deal since those early days. Now during the months they spend drilling wells in Guatemala, the family resides at Camp Esperanza (Camp Hope). In order to meet the needs of the poor, family privacy is often sacrificed. “We are often 40 people around the table with many different opinions. When I need to discipline one of my children, there are many people watching me. You are always in the spotlight -sometimes you have to let go of the small things,” says Miriam.
The van der Zalms work hard to ensure the funding of the Wells of Hope Program. In the off-season, Miriam runs the As You Like It Bed and Breakfast and Ted manages the Ted van der Zalm & Family Well Drilling & Water Delivery Services, in addition to teaching. Together they have found a way to keep their family unit strong through all the chaos that comes with raising five children and juggling all their responsibilities. Ted believes, “A family that prays together, stays together. We keep Sunday as a day to be together. Also, our adventures in Guatemala have strengthened our faith as a family.”
It’s never a dull moment for Miriam with Ted at the helm. When he has a goal in mind, there is no telling what he will do to achieve it, especially when it promotes his motto Love thy neighbour as thyself. “Ted is always getting into something,” Miriam exclaims. “You never know what is happening from one day to the next. Like when he came home and announced, ‘Guess what? I sold the house and bought a drilling rig.’”
Ted credits Miriam for the success of the family and on-going charity work “Miriam is the pillar. Our family would have never been able do what we have done for the people of Guatemala without her.”
“The secret to a successful marriage is to keep looking in the same direction,” Miriam says.
Ted adds, “Life is about relationships. You don’t fall in love, you grow in love.”