When Don Koolmees ’78 passed through Des Moines on his way to Central College, it seemed like a pretty small town. Koolmees had grown up in a suburb of Los Angeles, so moving to Pella was a big cultural adjustment. “I had just dropped off the edge of the earth or something,” Koolmees said, “and I thought, ‘This is an adventure.’”
Koolmees’ next adventure was a semester in Merida, Yucatan, through Central’s study abroad program. He graduated with degrees in psychology and physical education and worked for Central admissions on the west coast for two years. Then, in 1980, Koolmees decided to spend his summer as a whitewater raft guide—and he’s been in the rafting business ever since.
Koolmees owns Whitewater Connection, a rafting company based in Coloma, California. From April to September, the company offers trips on several rivers with mild to challenging rapids. “I like giving people the opportunity to have fun and push themselves,” Koolmees said.
Between rafting seasons, Koolmees has also completed a masters in counseling at California State University. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) and runs a private counseling practice based near L.A. throughout the year. In the summer, Koolmees flies back and forth between L.A. and Coloma, and he still finds time to be out on the water every week.
At Whitewater Connection, Koolmees hires guides from around the world to lead rafting trips, including four recent Central graduates. Mollie Kingma ’13, Daphne Baumgartner ’14 and Bre Stephenson ’14 are living by the American River on Whitewater Connection’s 40-acre base camp and working with Koolmees’ son and operations manager, Trevor ‘14. Koolmees said the job provides a great opportunity for young adults to enjoy the outdoors while learning a variety of business or marketing skills in the office.
While in college, all four graduates extended their studies beyond Central’s campus. Trevor and Kingma studied abroad in Spain and Yucatan (Trevor also went to Ghana), Baumgartner spent a semester in Chicago and Stephenson studied in the Netherlands.
Koolmees said he encouraged his kids, Trevor and Megan ’13, to go to Central because they would have many opportunities to travel. Both students took advantage of these opportunities; Trevor visited 21 different countries while a Central student, and Megan studied abroad in Paris.
International study was also important to Kingma. “That was my number one reason for attending Central,” she said. Kingma, who worked for Central College Abroad after graduation, said she was drawn to Whitewater Connection because of the international community. Because staff members come from all over the world—and then become family—Kingma said working in Coloma is remarkably like a study abroad experience.
After completing rigorous training, Baumgartner and Stephenson are now qualified river guides. Meanwhile, Kingma manages the Whitewater Connection office but said everyone pitches in to make the business run, from working the store to cooking breakfast. “The work is constant,” Kingma said. “It has been so much fun.”
Stephenson said studying at Central opened her world to new experiences like becoming a river guide. “It was a gateway to seeing other places and made me want to travel,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson said she was eager to move to the West Coast, but now she is disappointed because California really is as sunny as she’d heard. “That’s one thing I completely miss,” Stephenson said. “It never rains here at all.”