After working with disabled children and adults for the last 30 years, Ben Oude Kamphuis decided to take the travels he peppers his life with and make them his main course.
Oude Kamphuis turned 55 on June 7, retired from his job with the city of San Francisco, drove across the United States and stopped in New York before he shipped his '55 Chevy, Nellie Jane, to Africa where he plans to help his friend build a school. In an age of intolerance, Oude Kamphuis is trying to bring smiles and understanding — even to jaded New Yorkers.
He didn’t intend to go to Ghana initially. He just planned to see the United States, stopping at schools for the deaf and disabled along the way so the kids could experience Nellie Jane, his specially tricked out truck with a giant half globe in the back, toys and other items attached to the hood and a smiley face for hubcaps. He instantly attracted a crowd near Penn Station recently when he stopped and let strangers take pictures and ask questions about Nellie Jane.
“I grew up in a free country,” he said. “I came to a free country. I feel like the lucky one. I saved a little money. I created an old car that I have fun with and it makes people talk and smile, so I feel like the lucky one that I can do it.”
Oude Kamphuis said he believes in love, peace and harmony, but he never takes the credit for bringing happiness. Instead, he gives all the praise to "old Nellie Jane."
Nellie Jane is an American car, but Oude Kamphuis was born in Holland in a small farming community. He lived with his mom, four brothers and younger sister on a hobby farm with cows, a horse, geese, chickens and pigs. He attended trade school and learned landscaping.
As the second youngest in the brood, Oude Kamphuis was used to hand-me-down clothing and toys. His non-attachment to material objects is still evident today. He doesn’t have a house. He doesn’t care for fancy clothes. All of his money, he said, goes to Nellie Jane.
“The way I choose to live my life makes it look like, ‘Oh, this guy is just swimming in the money.’ That’s not the case,” Oude Kamphuis said passionately. “I sleep in the back of my truck. I eat. I don’t care about clothes. I love my ’55 Chevy and that’s where I put my money. And I saved some money over the 30 years that I worked and I don’t have a home. I don’t have anything.”
“That’s what I want to do with my money. You have a choice to do what you want with your money.”
Oude Kamphuis’ mom, who came from a farming family with 13 siblings, was a janitor on the side and Oude Kamphuis said he used to help her clean bathroons at the cotton factory where his dad worked. Oude Kamphuis doesn’t speak much about his father, but said he got his “kookamamie side” from him.
“He was always, from what I heard, he was the clown, the joker and I definitely got that from him,” Oude Kamphuis said.
When Oude Kamphuis was 15, he told his mom he wanted to see Paris. He saved his money from his gardening jobs. His mom not only gave her blessing, but encouraged her son to go.
Oude Kamphuis spent five days by himself in the City of Love and began a long relationship with wanderlust. Mandatory time in the army was first, though.
Since all boys in Holland have to give 14 months to the army, Oude Kamphuis joined when he was 17. Teenage Oude Kamphuis had fun throwing grenades, shooting bazookas and semi-automatic weapons, but war was not in his heart, he said.
“It’s not my belief,” Oude Kamphuis said. “I understand we need an army, but I’m way more of a hippie guy. Can we not get along with each other? I will come with flowers instead of a gun.”
Some life-altering changes happened before he turned 25. Oude Kamphuis’s mother, whom he credits with teaching him compassion, died in 1986. After a few back surgeries, Oude Kamphuis’ life of manual labor had to end. During one stay, his hospital roommate was a developmentally disabled man.
“He really cracked my ass up,” Oude Kamphuis said with a little laugh. “I love that guy.”
A visit from a friend who was also a social worker cemented the idea that Oude Kamphuis was going to work with the disabled when he was released from the hospital. He flew to Indiana in 1987 to work at a camp for kids through the University of Bloomington. His curiosity took him to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus where he fell in love with the West Coast. Using New York as his landing pad and point of takeoff, Oude Kamphuis headed back to Holland long enough to pack up his things and say goodbye to friends and family before heading back to sunny California.
Oude Kamphuis might have lived in California, but he never really settled. For the first seven years in the New World, Oude Kamphuis lived a nomadic life, hopping from camps to Native American reservations to other camps helping kids and adults with disabilities. He then landed a job with the city of San Francisco as an adaptive recreation specialist where he said he has “never gone to work” one day of the 23 years he was there.
“I’ve always had a good time,” he said. “It didn’t matter if it was Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday. It was always a good day.”
Good days included the vacation time Oude Kamphuis saved up, which allowed him to travel while holding a steady job. While in Utah on one of his adventures about 16 years ago, he met Nellie Jane. Since then, he and his custom antique auto have traveled the continents.
After returning from a road trip to Brazil in 2014, Oude Kamphuis enlisted the help of his students and gave Nellie Jane a makeover.
“The last art project was making old Nellie Jane into the Earth, you know, that we’re all the same people,” Oude Kamphuis explained. “Kids and adults with disabilities have helped me paint it, decorate it and then it looks right now that the back all looks like the Earth … the idea with the truck is like, if I park it somewhere or even today like in New York City, when I drive, people look at it and they all start smiling and ‘hey man, thumbs up. Let’s help each other and stop discriminating and stop the hate and the violence.’ So that’s kind of like roughly the idea with old Nellie Jane.”
Oude Kamphuis said he loves his adopted country, but he immerses himself in the culture of every country he visits. Nellie Jane’s adornments even include the host country’s flag.
“One thing that you do want to keep an eye on is that you’re nice to people,” Oude kamphuis said. “Come in with a smile. To me, with all these countries that I’ve been to, it’s never backfired. … I come in peace and I leave in one piece.”
Nellie Jane is now on her way to Ghana. Oude Kamphuis and his girlfriend, a special education teacher, don’t have their plane tickets yet.
“It don’t matter,” Oude Kamphuis said. “If you come with good energy, it will all be good.”
After a week, or two, or three in California wrapping things up, Oude Kamphuis will be reunited with Nellie Jane on the continent of Africa, where he plans to stay for a few years drifting from community to community helping build, reconstruct and grow.
“I’ll probably stay in Ghana for a year or two just to help [my friend] work on [the school] … then maybe drive old Nellie Jane through Africa, South Africa and just see if there are different projects that I can be involved in,” he said.
Wherever he goes, Oude Kamphuis seems most excited about the joy Nellie Jane brings to people. His life mission might not be described as working with the disabled, growing organic gardens or globetrotting with his lady and his classic car. Oude Kamphuis – and Nellie Jane – are fueled by peace, love and understanding.
“I’m sick and tired of hate and violence and I don’t wanna sit down and not do anything about it,” Oude Kamphuis said emphatically. “I have a responsibility, I feel like, as an adult that I don’t want to give in to hate and violence. And this is my little dream that I cooked up. How I see my life going. Like, I gotta do something about it. I’m working with disabled kids and I see too much of it. Like, ‘hey, this is my life;’ I saved some money, and this is what I wanna do. Put a smile on people’s faces. Just by looking at the truck is going to make them smile.”