Photo By: Photo by Eren Gknar/Special to the Town Crier
From living with the headhunters of Borneo to teaching grade-school children in India, for years Los Altos resident Bonnie Bollwinkel brought her American way of thinking to educating people around the world about health issues.
As a young woman in India, for example, Bollwinkel joined Lutheran missionaries who taught in the rote British “mug and jug” style.
“I taught like an American, so I had a poster contest with health rules they could bring home to their parents,” she said. “The kids loved it.”
Her animated, hands-on approach made her popular with children and parents alike.
A physician colleague asked her to spend six months in the family planning department at Chulalongkorn Hospital in Thailand.
These days, Bollwinkel, 63, a charming and energetic presence, melds her experience in international relief work with a heart for seniors to serve as professional education specialist with the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada.
Hitting close to home
Bollwinkel, a licensed clinical social worker, trains others to face the challenges of Alzheimer’s, the disease that took the life of her father, Don. Her grandmother, uncle and two aunts also died of the disease. Bollwinkel likes to add, however, that her 87-year-old mother, Betsy, is still alive and kicking, with a 91-year-old boyfriend.
Her parents’ photos, framed on the lobby walls at the Mountain View association headquarters, remind Bollwinkel daily why she does this work.
“Alzheimer’s has no survivors – there’s no cure,” she said.
She serves on the city’s task force to address a cure and to help caregivers, an effort she calls “progressive” compared to other cities. She also lobbies for research for Alzheimer’s in Washington, D.C., annually and sits on the San Francisco Dementia Care Education Task Force, which addresses the public health issue of Alzheimer’s and educates and provides caregivers with support.
In 2001, Bollwinkel formed a team at Los Altos United Methodist Church – where her husband, Mark, has served as senior pastor since 1999 – to participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association’s signature fundraiser. Her initial team of seven people earned $3,000 for their efforts. Last year, 146 people walked, netting $103,000. During her reign as team captain, she shepherded the team at Los Altos United Methodist to the top fundraising spot in the country.
On a mission
The roots of Bollwinkel’s desire to help others run deep.
Born in San Francisco, she grew up in Orinda. When she was a junior in college, her father, an obstetrician and gynecologist in private practice, became an exchange professor in public health and she moved with her parents and two younger sisters to East Africa.
“It changed my whole life, and it was the best time in my life,” mused Bollwinkel.
Returning stateside, she attended Callison College at University of the Pacific in 1971. Callison, dedicated to the study of international relations, required students to spend a year in India. Bollwinkel met her husband-to-be on a plane during the college’s pre-semester trip to Singapore and Malaysia.
In her college days, the thought of being a pastor’s wife was daunting. She admits to being “very terrified of the expectations placed on a pastor’s wife.” Also, her maternal grandparents were zealous missionaries, sternly reciting the word of God to all who would listen.
“I knew Mark wanted to be a pastor from the time he was 16, but he had studied anthropology and it was important to him to live in other cultures,” she said.
Indeed, she optimistically thought she could “separate the man from the minister.”
Over the years of their marriage and the birth of sons Dan and Matt, she discovered that they were a team, and that she was the extrovert.
A world of travel
The Bollwinkels have traveled the world together, including a stint studying in Kenya underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant from the Methodist Church.
“We grew our own food, potatoes, spinach, everything, and when I became pregnant, I got hot milk from the cows,” she said.
After traveling to Southeast Asia and Malaysia, the couple stayed in Sarawak, Borneo. Bollwinkel said she often went to the “long house” to breastfeed infant son Matt, who was born there. She practiced informal social work by teaching her friends in the village about the health benefits of breastfeeding. She would say, “I eat well, so he gets big.” Mark served as principal of a theological school, but the government didn’t allow foreign wives to work.
Borneo was a very rural assignment, and both Matt and her husband contracted typhoid. The experience was difficult for Bollwinkel, who had no washing machine and had to cook her own baby food.
“I got a glimpse of what it was like when women didn’t have all the conveniences,” she said, adding that she found it a very “powerful experience.”
When the family returned to the U.S., she worked as a social worker in Sacramento at a hotel for people older than 60, finding that “disenfranchised folks like Box Car Bill loved me.”
She has lived in Los Altos for 13 years now and said “coming here was in a way like coming home.”
She points out that Los Altos United Methodist is the second-largest church in the state – after Glide Memorial in San Francisco. She said she loves the social interactions and opportunities that serving in a body of that size afford.
Walking for a cure
Bollwinkel lives with the hope for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
“We’re living longer, so we’re living with more chronic conditions, and doctors are getting more accurate about diagnoses,” she said.
This year’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s is scheduled Sept. 29 in San Francisco. The Bollwinkels will be in Paris celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, so Bonnie has passed the torch to co-captains Kate Carlin and Susan O’Neil.