Beth and I have been back in South Africa for one month now. It is spring of the year and all things are like new.

Many of our animals have new babies and even our Pastor Jonathan and his wife have a new baby girl. The rains have not started yet, so the grass is still dry and tender. This is the time of year that we have to be concerned about grass fires. We are praying that the rains will come soon.

Days for Girls team.

Our first team this season was a group of women recruited by Beth’s sister, Paula. They were here specializing in distributing Days for Girls feminine hygiene kits. The kits are much appreciated by the young women, as many of them are unable to afford to purchase disposable pads. One of the things that I like most about this program is that it gives us an opportunity to teach these young women many things about women’s health issues and general life skills. We were able to visit four different large schools and distribute more than 1,500 kits. This was the second annual short-term mission trip for us that focused on educating young women and distributing the kits. Several team members have already told us that they will be returning in July 2018 with the next Days for Girls team.

Rotary team in front of the Leroy Blessman Lodge of Dreams.

Our second team this season is a Rotary team led by Lee Holmes. With this team, we have had a good time doing optical outreaches and distributing glasses to children who need them. We screened the vision of approximately 2,000 children and gave eyeglasses to 269. We were very blessed to have an optometrist, Ralph De Haan, from Pella leading the optical outreach. We are hoping to recruit many more optometrists to join our efforts to continue this effort.

Bob and Lois Vermeer at a shoe outreach with the Rotary team.

We were also blessed this week to have Bob and Lois Vermeer from Pella joining us to see some of the projects that they personally, as well as their foundation, have been supporting. They also enjoyed joining us on the optical outreaches and Lois especially mentioned that she enjoyed our shoe distribution outreach as well.

The Rotary team visited two Rotary Clubs and helped me put the final touches on the global matching grant application. The name of this grant is “Teach a Child to Fish”. It is primarily a program to teach African young people to farm with excellence by establishing high quality school gardens. These gardens will provide excellent nutrition for the children at school and teach them to start their own gardens at their homes. We are seeking about $150,000 to set up these gardens and to train the teachers and children. In addition to agronomy training, we will also have a three-day course for each school on learning good business and budgeting principles. The program and follow up in each school will be intense for the first 2 years with less frequent follow up, monitoring and motivation of the schools for years 3 through 5.

Students help by farming at Sterkrivier School.

We have already started a pilot garden at Sterkrivier School where our Mountain View Church is located and it is already looking nice. Our ministry has adopted Sterkrivier School, and doing our best to make it better and better. There are 140 children there in grades 7 through 12—58 of these students are boarding students. Over the past two years, we have been remodeling and painting our church building there. We have also been helping them with cutting the grass on this large property and soccer field. Now we are beginning to help fix up their student boarding area. Last year we put new glass in all of the windows in the boys’ dorm. The Rotary team showed the boys how to paint their room and were able to replace some of their mattresses and bedding. It is a never-ending task but gradually, together, we are making a difference in these children’s lives.

Students at Sterkrivier School help clean and paint their dormitory.

I have also been working to raise significant funding from here in South Africa. Kabelo and I have been meeting with the largest platinum mine in our area and have given them a proposal for matching funds to help us drill more wells and build more toilets next year. The funds will also help us to distribute more shoes, eyeglasses and feminine hygiene kits. We have had two meetings with them over the last couple of weeks and they seem quite interested in our proposal and indicate we may be able to get started with it around the first of the year.

Hy-Vee has indicated some interest in working with us with a matching program such as this to provide more water systems to children in rural South Africa. We should have an answer from them some time in October.

A well that was donated in partnership with Hy-Vee and Rotary.

I also learned of a group from Germany who plans to donate 6 billion euros to help communities in all of Southern Africa. They have a good relationship with the Rotary and want to work with them as they apply for this donation. We will be applying for additional matching funds from this group to again drill wells and build toilets in our area.

Both of our churches remain strong. Last Friday evening, I helped transport youth to our rural church at Mountain View Christian Church for youth group. Even in this remote rural area there are 50 young people attending. They are singing and dancing listening to the Word of God. I am so appreciative Pastor Manyathela who works fulltime as a dentist and still gives so much of this time to shepherd this great church.

I never cease to be amazed at how God continues to provide all of the resources that we need to do the work that He has called us to do.

Beth and I have been back in the States for just a week now and I am overwhelmed by the support Americans, and especially Iowans, have for the work we are doing in South Africa. Statistics still show that 15% of our children in South Africa are malnourished. This often causes their growth to be stunted and also their brain development to be permanently impaired.

Feed Today

With the assistance of Meals from the Heartland, Convoy of Hope, and thousands of Iowans we have successfully imported 6 million meals to our province of Limpopo, South Africa. That is unquestionably a lot of food, and it has been a God Sent blessing to the orphans that we are serving! As I look back over the past 5 years, it also seems like just a cup of water in an ocean of need.

Meals from the Heartland packets in a shipping container that was shipped by Convoy of Hope

For some time now, we have been looking for ways to feed these children with food from Africa. We continue to develop and improve our intensive vegetable farming operation to provide fresh vegetables as a renewable food source.

Food For Tomorrow

A few years ago we developed a bakery to provide warm fresh bread to the children in our Del Cramer Child Development Center. That has been a big blessing, but quite frankly, that center serves 105 children out of the 7,500 that we help provide food and nutrition. Around the same time the bakery started we developed a poultry program to provide fresh chicken meat to our children, but again this was only at our Del Cramer Center.

Click to watch our “Teach a Man to Fish” Video on Youtube

We are looking at developing a layer program to provide fresh eggs to hundreds of our children and also a tilapia program to provide fresh fish to supplement their diets.

Boys taking live chickens home from our farming co-op at Del Cramer Children’s Campus

Safari game hunting is a big industry in the area of South Africa where we live, and we are exploring ways for safari hunters to be able to donate the meat from their hunts to help provide red meat to supplement our children’s nutritional program.

As we are preparing to leave this beautiful land again, I am pausing to reflect why I am still here after 12 years and just what I love about living and serving in Africa.

The why is pretty simple. It is a “calling” from God, and I am just being obedient to His calling. I am here as an Ambassador of God’s love. Missionaries who try to live in a harsh land such as Africa simply do not have the staying power unless they are serving as part of a calling from God. Last year I applied to be the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and, had I been selected, my role would have been to fulfill the will of our president and the government who would be sending me. It is like that; being an Ambassador of God’s love, only instead of obeying a government, I am doing my best to obey the Lord’s will.

Planting Vegetables in a Small Garden

The things that I love about serving in Africa are many. At the very top of this list is that it brings joy to my heart to be in a position to care for thousands of beautiful children. Our ministry is a big piece of solving the food insecurity problem for many of these children. We started out with the assistance of Convoy of Hope and Meals from the Heartland importing rice food packets. For the last 5 years, we have imported 1.2 million meals each year. Two years ago, God provided us with a small 130-acre farm, which we are using to intensely farm vegetables to help feed these same children with farm produce grown in their own country. This coming year we are starting a new program called Teach a Man to Fish, where South Africans will learn how to grow their own food with land easily available to them.

Days for Girls Kit with Scripture

As a physician, I have been able to provide medical care, especially optical care, to thousands of children. A few years ago, we started a ministry providing new shoes to impoverished children. It is part of our overall Christian approach in that we not only provide the children with shoes, but we serve them by washing their feet and praying for them. Our newest outreach program is to provide washable reusable feminine hygiene kits to impoverished young women here. The kits are given to them in a colorful drawstring bag that they can use to carry their homework and these kits back and forth to school. Hundreds of women all across America have been sewing these kits and sending them to us in Africa with our many short-term mission team members who come to serve with us.

Team Members Gathered Around a Campfire

One of my great joys is to sit under the African night sky, around a campfire, and hear the stories from all our guests who come to help us serve these children each year. We hear many stories of how God has filled their hearts with love for these same children that Beth and I love so much. They are always amazed at how happy our impoverished children seem to be. They may be living in a shack with no parents, a dirt floor, no electricity and no running water; yet we can all see the joy in their hearts as we reach out to serve them and to love them. Most of us think that our stuff, our money, our cars, our homes, or our family make us happy, yet these children may have none of that and they still have joy and hope. Many of our team members often tell us that they come back home and feel embarrassed about all the stuff they have accumulated. Giving back to others is a great formula to find joy and happiness.

Photo Taken by Team Member on a Safari at Entebeni

I also love the African bush field and all the African animals. It gives me great joy to hear the excitement in the voice of our teams as they see their first giraffe or zebra in the wild. Nearly every team member gets great photos and even interactions with lions and elephants.
My thoughts for this blog came to me sitting in church yesterday watching my African friends dancing and singing and simply having lots of fun in church. The people here do not go to church out of obligation. They go to be with their friends, to have a great time, and most importantly, to have an encounter with God Himself.

Lethabo Sewing & Training Center Staff – The Center is Located on our Lodge of Dreams Campus

The main thing that I love about Africa is the people. I especially love working with our staff of about 40 Africans, most of whom have been working with us for many years. They are like family to us; typically both the husband and wife work with us and their children are part of our extended family.

Africa is definitely not Heaven; it is known as the Dark Continent and often for good reason. I will save those stories for another blog. I pray for and thank all of you all around the world who are assisting Beth and me in staying on the African mission field. I also pray that many of you will come and experience the joy of serving here in Africa for a short 2-week mission or service trip with us.

Our University of Northwestern Team Experiencing Adventures with Elephants

It is winter here in South Africa and our first team for this season from the University of Northwestern, in St. Paul, MN, is just completing their work with us. James Smith, an IT professor with the college, is leading this team of 9 people. In addition, we have had a global health professor, from the University of Iowa, here exploring our site for potential clinical rotations for her medical students and residents. We also have 2 interns from Iowa State University spending 3 months with us helping with various projects.

Team Members Built Playground and Planted Seeds at Del Cramer

The winter season here is turning out to be an excellent time for us to work with college students from North America. The University of Northwestern team funded and constructed a beautiful playground for our orphans and vulnerable children at Del Cramer Children’s Campus. Well over 100 children will be enjoying this new equipment. The new playground consists of 3 treated wooden structures with lots of swings and slides. The only thing we have left to do is to paint it with beautiful, colorful paints. The children could barely wait for us to finish to begin playing on it. This team of IT students have also been busy enlarging and updating our computer lab.

Student Praying with Man on an Eyeglass and “Days for Girls” Outreach

We will now have 14 functioning computers all connected to the internet to improve the education of our children at Del Cramer. This is essentially the only computer lab available to the children in this tribal village. Professor James Smith has also been working with our Iowa State University interns in developing a research program to scientifically measure the benefits of what we are doing at the Del Cramer Children’s Campus. This week they have been measuring the height and weight of each of the children we are serving. We also would like to include other statistical data like teen pregnancy rate, school performance and health status of our children. We will also be getting data from a control group of students that are impoverished, but not yet receiving the benefits of the food supplements, the educational support, and the social and spiritual encouragement that Blessman International provides.

Team Members Measuring Child to Collect Data at Del Cramer

There is no question in my mind that what we are doing is benefiting these children, but we hope that a scientific research program may assist us in accessing future funding from government and private foundations. This is planned to be a 3 year study. Professor James Smith is hoping to come back in January for an additional 6 months of work here in South Africa. I am praying that additional interns will come along and help us to complete this program with excellence. We will likely be partnering in this effort with Meals from the Heartland and Convoy of Hope.

New Murals in our KC Live Children’s Church at Del Cramer Children’s Campus

One of the members of this team is also a talented artist and painted some beautiful murals on the walls of our children’s church.

Beth and I have also been busy this week working with a large district Rotary conference in Polokwane. Dustin has been on a well-deserved vacation, touring Austria and Italy on a motorbike. I am sure that he will soon post many photos and stories of his travels.

Our US staff and members of the US and South African boards met recently for a day-long retreat.

Here are some of my thoughts following the retreat:

Board retreat with most of our U.S. and a few of our South African Staff and Board Members.

My goals going into this retreat were for both the American and South African boards to get to know each other better and to understand the roles of how we can all work together smoothly. From the South African side we had Dustin and René Blessman, Kabelo Bopapé, Beth and l present. From the American side our U.S. staff and all but two members of the board were present.

Photo of Blessman International staff and board members, at the Jester Park Lodge, in Iowa.

I came out of the meeting with the feeling that the role of the American board is to maintain a governance structure that permits us to maintain our non-profit status in America, to raise funds and to build teams to travel to South Africa. The main role of the South African side is again to have a governance structure that helps us maintain our non-profit status in South Africa, to begin raising more funds from the African side and to manage operations of the ministry in South Africa. Dustin is the president of the South African board and I am CEO of the American board.

Photo: Justin Rogers Photography. Taken at our annual spring gala this year.

Our spring gala held just days prior to the board retreat was a great success with us raising nearly $450,000! Thank you to all everyone who helped make it a special evening.

One of our “Mission Moment” videos. Click to watch on our Youtube channel and view our other videos while you’re there.

We are busy reviewing and possibly updating our mission and vision statements, a committee is working on that with the help of the marketing firm, Love Scott & Associates. Our marketing committee is also busy upgrading our website, possible additional advertising for our mission trips and a new weekly one minute video, “Mission Moments”. I will also do my best to restart my blogs that were quite popular and helpful in the past.

Our time here in South Africa is going by way too fast. The construction of our sanitation (Enviro Loo) project in the community of Nobody is complete. We built four new waterless toilets for 75 preschool children. We also put up a water storage tank for them so they will have a reliable supply of water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. This project was in partnership with St. Francis Catholic Church, in West Des Moines, and a Rotary Club in Polokwane.

Picture of the toilets at the creche in Nobody that are almost finished

Representatives from Rotary International will soon be visiting our larger water project that was done in partnership with HyVee and Rotary. This project started out to be for 10 rural schools; however, we were able to be more cost efficient than we budgeted for, so we should end up with about 13 schools. Due to their limited time, we will not be able to get around to all the schools but will show them a nice sample 3 to 5 schools.

Agricultural Consultants visiting our Mountain View Hope Christian Church

This week we received approval from the Pietersburg 100 Rotary Club that they would like to work with us in developing another global matching grant to teach Africans improved farming practices. With this grant, we will also be working with the rural public schools to teach them how to farm in school gardens. We will be using our Mountain View Training and Research Farm as the main training center and will bring representatives there from each of the schools for multiple 3-day practical training courses. Using our greenhouses and shade netting, we already have a perfect lab to teach them practical vegetable farming practices. We are hoping that we can also soon add fish farming and poultry egg production to the training. Once set up, this system should add significant sustainability to our orphan and vulnerable feeding programs while adding to the overall sustainability of Blessman International.

Visit from Eagle’s Nest, from left to right: Jim, Timothy, Elsa, Mac & Rene’

This weekend we have enjoyed hosting our friends Mac, Elsa and Timothy who do a farm training program at their private Christian School, Eagle’s Nest, in Polokwane. We are hoping to be able to contract with them to help us do some of the training on our farm as well. They specialize in training smallholder farmers with a program called Foundations for Farming. This program is a no-till method of farming using lots of mulch and composting.

Fresh produce from our Mountain View Training & Research Farm

Next week we hope to be accepting delivery of a new refrigerated trailer that will help us get our produce to market in excellent condition. We are currently growing spinach, beets, green peppers, and tomatoes.

We just finished hosting our first team of the year. There were 19 people from St. Francis Catholic Church in West Des Moines, Iowa. This was their 3rd annual short-term mission trip with us, and they have already booked their return trip for 2018. We love working with them, and they have always had a good experience working with us.

St. Francis of Assisi Church, in West Des Moines, IA, team members installing part of the toilets.

Toilets being installed at Creative Kids Early Learning Centre in a town called “Nobody”.

Their project focus for this year was to assist us in building water-less, Enviro-Loo toilets to replace the existing outdoor toilets at a small preschool. We are doing this project in partnership with both the Rotary and St. Francis Church. This school does not have running water except for 2 barrels that they can fill on Thursday’s and Friday’s. One of our next water projects that I hope to propose to Hy-Vee is to get the preschool a 1000-liter water tank on a stand that they can fill and have a good water supply all week. Hy-Vee has been wonderful to help us bring water to many children in these remote villages. This village has an interesting name of “Nobody”. The team could fill a book with all of the one-liners they came up with on the drive to Nobody! We will continue to return to this village with many other service projects as the Lord provides.

St. Francis team with a group of school children helping to clean and fix the school on a Saturday.

This team also assisted us with distributing eyeglasses, free shoes and washable, reusable feminine hygiene kits (Days for Girls kits). A group from St. Francis had made and sent over 100 Days for Girls kits with the team.

Another work project that this team enjoyed was improving the conditions at Sterkrivier Combined School. This is another rural farm school where approximately 130 children, whose parents are mostly farm workers, attend. There are approximately 40 boarding students at this school. The primary reason for boarding is that the transportation to and from school is difficult, however, the living conditions at the boarding school will break your heart. A room the size of most children in American’s bedroom is the sleeping area for 14 students. Many of the windows of this dormitory were broken out and there was trash everywhere.

School boys repairing windows of their school.

This team did a wonderful job of motivating some of the high school boys staying there on one of their Saturday’s with us. The team and students filled 6 large trash bags and put them in the burn pile and replaced the broken windows. The boys were trained how to use the weed-eaters while our large tractor mower mowed the grass around the school, dormitories, outdoor toilets, and even their soccer field. There are separate toilets for both the boys and the girls, but they are unpleasant and disgusting, with limited privacy. Also, it is quite a walk to the toilets, especially for the girls at night.

School boy mowing grass.

The male students loved the opportunity to join alongside our American team in fixing up their school. They were essentially bored to tears with nothing to do on this Saturday afternoon. We have already made plans to continue mentoring and supervising similar work projects with these students on Saturday afternoons, on a regular basis. Johanney and Zulu, our staff, at Mountain View Farm will be following up on this.

This team, like all our teams, got to enjoy sitting under the Africa stars around a camp fire, telling their stories of how they were enjoying this unique experience. They enjoyed a photo safari with bush dinner afterwards. Finally, to top it off, they all walked with Lions at the Ranch Resort. On their way back to the airport the last day they stopped by Adventures with Elephants for a final safari riding an elephant.

We at Blessman International would like to encourage all of you to join us on an amazing African experience. Where the sense of accomplishment that you get helping our beautiful orphans and vulnerable children far outweighs even the joy of our unique safaris.