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Paying it Forward: the Poort Family Story

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It all started with a woman with a vision, that now impacts a large part of her family.

Many employees who work onboard the BADGER will tell you that coming to work is like coming “home” to family. The Poort Family works onboard in various departments and considers other members of the crew and their respective departments to be part of their extended family. Steve (dad), Tonia (mom), and Luke (son) all found themselves working onboard the BADGER in 2022 and it was not planned.

Steve is originally from the Rockford, MI area and met Tonia outside of Baltimore, MD during his time in the Army. He went on to establish a career as a police officer. Over the years, their family would often vacation and spend time with their family in Michigan. Their daughter Sarah eventually settled in Hart, MI and Steve and Tonia enjoyed visiting West Michigan.

As Steve was starting to think about retirement, their family plans shifted as Sarah was diagnosed with brain cancer and was given a terminal diagnosis. The family moved closer to Sarah to help navigate her health, as she began treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. After the first drive, Tonia admits they were exhausted from the long travel and wanted Sarah to be as comfortable as she could be.

No one in their family had ever sailed on the BADGER before and after Tonia called the reservation department to get more information, they decided to make an adventure out of it. She was hesitant to sail as Sarah used a wheelchair and needed assistance to board. She didn’t expect that phone call to make such an impact on what her life was about to become.

“Looking back at that very first trip, it was excellent. I could not have asked for a better travel experience.” Sailing on the BADGER became an integral part of their travels to Mayo Clinic and precious time that they looked forward to spending together. With each crossing, they got to know the crew.

Immediately, Sarah thought of her brother, Luke, and her vision of the BADGER as a perfect place for him to work. She enjoyed asking crew members about their job duties and learning all the ins and outs of what it was like to work on a National Historic Landmark. Luke began looking into working onboard and was surprised to see the variety of opportunities available. One day while sailing, Sarah looked at Dean Schultz, our lead K9 handler, and said, “You need to tell me exactly what you do and how you get this job. I know you don’t have a lot of time and I don’t have time either”. After their conversation, Sarah proclaimed to Dean that her father fit all the qualifications and that he needed to hire him. On other crossings, they got to know Chuck, who at the time was a chair lift operator. These interactions with the crew made their trips memorable and welcoming. Whenever Sarah and Tonia sailed, they were always eager to get home and tell the rest of their family about the new things they would learn about the BADGER and the crew.

In December of 2021, Sarah lost her battle with brain cancer.

“I never thought Dean would call me. I would just say, ‘ok yeah’ this guy is never going to call me.” To his surprise, Dean did give Steve a call in January 2022. Looking back, Steve recalls this as the perfect timing as the family was looking forward after their loss. “Dean asked if I’d like to get together and chat about the possibility of becoming a dog handler on the BADGER. We met up and six hours later, it was as if we had known each other for years. Our K9 team is close-knit, with similar backgrounds, we just mesh like we are all brothers.” Initially, Steve was a little hesitant to take the job as he had never worked in a K9 Unit before. Dean reassured Steve, “These dogs come into your lives when you need them most.” The K9 team consists of Dean, Steve, now Chuck, and Ian and they all get together throughout the year and off-season to train with the dogs.

Luke was officially the first of the Poort family to sign on to become a part of the BADGER family as he applied to become an Ordinary Seaman or deckhand. Steve followed behind him, officially becoming a part of the K9 Search team. It was Luke who would come home every day and pester his mom to join the crew. As she did all the sailing with Sarah, it was easy for her to understand the significance of the crew and the experiences they are a part of for the passengers. She was eager to, in her own words, “pay it forward” the kindness to other passengers, as she and Sarah had experienced. Tonia officially joined the BADGER crew in late June as Deck Security and has enjoyed getting to know passengers and helping them, like she once had been assisted.

All of the K9s who work onboard the BADGER come from Poland through a partnership with Mid-Michigan Police K9. Dean had the opportunity to travel to Poland and he handpicked Iris, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepard Mix. She was the first dog he saw and was impressed. After seeing all the dogs and reviewing his notes, he knew that Iris would be a wonderful search dog and exactly what the BADGER needed. Dean called Steve to break the news that he found his partner. When he told him about Iris and her name, Steve hesitated. Dean asked if there was an issue, to which Steve proclaimed, “My daughter Katie is expecting and if she has a girl, her name will be Iris.” Shocked at this connection, it was clear – this dog was meant to be a part of the Poort Family. They decided to rename her Greta.

Steve was a police officer for 20 years and had many friends who worked in K9 units, but never expected to work in one himself. “Greta has been the perfect addition to our family. I’ve even asked Dean how he knew to pick her.” Greta has adopted Steve and Tonia’s grandchildren as her own “babies” as she makes sure to greet them with doggy kisses every morning. She’s eager to work and enjoys her time onboard; she’s quickly become an excellent search dog for the BADGER.

The Poort’s had never imagined all working together, but it’s been the perfect balance and situation. Although they all work in different departments, they enjoy getting to overlap their mealtimes and having family meals together in the Crew Galley.

They all touch on the fact that working on the BADGER has been therapeutic for them in multiple ways. Memories of sailing with Sarah, getting to pay it forward to passengers, and getting those spiritual moments experiencing Lake Michigan in all of her glory. Especially Tonia notes that being onboard connects her back to those happy and calm moments of traveling with Sarah and feels that this is one way to honor her going forward. They go on to note that they are all thankful and proud of the BADGER Crew for showing up for them in the times when they needed it the most, and they are proud to be a part of such a caring and dynamic crew.

Sarah enjoyed her time onboard, getting to know the ship and her crew, and she saw the vision of her own family someday joining that crew. Here they are just a few short years later, paying it forward to the passengers who sail today. They are just one example of our crew who are excited to come into work and be with their family.

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