They say nice guys finish last, but try telling that to Dan Bouwman.
While successful businesspeople are often portrayed as ruthless people willing to step over their own mother’s body if it means getting a leg up on the competition, Bouwman’s commitment to community and to vulnerable people remains an awe-inspiring thing.
Yes, he’s the well-known businessman who founded Dan’s Produce in Niagara after emigrating from Holland years ago. But Bouwman’s lasting legacy may be his philanthropic work at Heartland Forest in Niagara Falls.
At 93 acres, the forest is one of the largest woodlands in Niagara. It’s located on Kalar Road, an area of the city with heavy development pressures as more and more housing projects go up.
Back in 1999, Bouwman acquired the land, with a steely determination to make sure it would be a place of wonder for generations of people to come. He fought for several years to have the property rezoned, sinking a good amount of time and money into that planning process.
His motive was simple: Bouwman said some years later that it was based on the value of preserving, not destroying.
And preserve he has: Heartland Forest, operated by a not-for-profit corporation with free admission, is wondrous place where people walking their dogs or carrying little kids get to see unique and rare plant species, marvel at frog and turtle ponds, stroll through Carolinian forests, and if they’re lucky, catch glimpses of the many deer, wild turkeys and other animals that call the place home.
Bouwman’s commitment to making the forest fully accessible to people with disabilities is also inspiring. His late granddaughter, Sydney, was born with lissencephaly and needed a wheelchair. Bouwman was determined to ensure everyone would be able to enjoy his forested reserve.
Everything from the mini-putt to the trails are barrier free. Heartland Forest has partnered with community groups such as Community Living, N-Tech, Niagara Support Services, Red Roof Retreat, Brain Injury Association, The March of Dimes (Ontario) and St. Catharines Rehabilitation Services. They are all groups that not only make use of Heartland’s facilities but also give back through work experience and help with park maintenance.
The forest’s latest addition is a new 14,000 square-foot nature centre set to open in June.
When regional politicians debated recently whether to waive development fees for the new centre, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati succinctly summed up the forest as an “absolutely unselfish venture.”
Score one for nice guys.