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May 2019 – Spotlight on Intern Erica Henderson

This month we just had a successful gala.  Thank you to all who were able to attend and support our ministry.  For the rest of my blog this month I would like to focus on a story about our intern Erica Henderson who is busy doing a great job helping us with all of our agricultural programs in South Africa. Thanks to Marvin Knoot for sharing this article with us.

“With Teach a Child to Fish, I’ve been up super early and so I run in the dark and return at sunrise,” responds Erica Henderson to an opening question about how things are going. She is training for her first half-marathon at Entabeni Game Reserve on June 22nd. Her morning runs include, “dodging wildebeest, a common occurrence,” which may just be part of proper training for the game reserve run!

Teach a Child to Fish

Erica is a 2018 graduate of the Global Resource Systems (GRS) program established in 2010 at Iowa State University. She is one fourth of the way through her year-long experience in the Limpopo province of South Africa, working with Blessman International. She is not the only early riser on Blessman’s Mountain View Farm. “This week is a perfect example of what’s been fulfilling to me…bringing in local staff from nearby schools selected for their ag-related potential and training them to operate their own school gardens. We’ve been teaching them this week…half high school students and half staff members…a lot of unique perspectives. The students are so eager to know what is next to learn. Some got up at 5 a.m. to get into the field to plant their rows…before they had their breakfast!” Blessman’s Teach a Child to Fish goal is to “equip them to provide a sustainable food source for themselves and for their communities.”

Erica’s enthusiasm further escalates when asked how the week’s training aligns with her Senior Thesis (The Impact of Small Scale Agriculture on Micronutrient Deficiencies in Children Age 0-12 in the Developing World). “Whooo, man! It’s been an echo of my thesis which was based on my first visit to South Africa. I’d seen vegetables and their effect at homes and schools, realizing this was actually providing growth in food security for households. It’s more than just access to food, any type of food, but food that will enhance the overall quality of life, especially the nutrients that enhance a child’s health and development.” She explains, “Case studies in the field compared households with micronutrient deficiencies (vitamins and minerals essential to daily function and development) against those with small scale gardens and ag. Studying the children for a year or longer they observed specific vitamin deficiencies. For example, Vitamin A in children under 5 can cause failure for proper eye development sometimes as severe as blindness. A dark green leafy vegetable, say spinach for example, is very high in Vitamin A, so even here in South Africa the household gardens can combat the Vitamin A deficiency. Without access to foods with adequate nutrition, we see students with a lack of attention and an inhibited ability to learn.”

Erica and Mountain View Farm Manager Johanney Chongani plant seedlings for the school garden.

The week’s activities are clearly exciting for Erica. “Oh man, you know I think…it’s been such a preparation process. I’ve learned so much being part of this training this week…seeing eyes come alive as they realize the promise of gardens and nutrition…helps me realize that with all that goes into this training, arranging instruction and housing (and many details)…we’re helping these people, enabling and empowering them as they then expand the benefit to others. We have some amazing teachers with passion, and it is inspiring…amazing…to watch them spend time with the students learning new skills. I know a couple of (students) from previous interactions. They were selected because they excelled in ag in their schools…good grades. It was so encouraging to come alongside them and…what’s the word…to encourage them to continue to work hard in school. If one student gets a new perspective on what ag is and how impactful it is, then the training is a success. If they understand what ag and gardening can do and share it with others, that’s successful training…a new perspective on farming and how it provides nutrition.”

“In 2 weeks I’ll go with a team to help plant gardens at those schools. I hope to give a presentation to students…classroom or assembly…about nutrition and (the importance of) vegetables. Then we’ll have two more week-long training sessions (20 per training) who will pay forward to the next generation, which is even cooler. I’m doing this because it’s helping someone. I see the mission being carried out before my eyes. 12 hour days seem like nothing because I know that what I’m doing is actually affecting people’s lives.”

Blessman International (www.www.blessmaninternational.org)

Invited to describe Blessman International’s strengths, Erica confidently lists three. “First, longevity – in order to see change happen in the field, you have to be willing to stay planted in the same community for a long period of time…development of relationships has to happen, change in perspectives has to happen. I’d say at least a decade to see change really happen. Blessman has been here for more than a decade. Second, vision – vision for the future which shows long-term investment in the people here. It’s not just throw money at the immediate problem. It’s what can we do for this community that will have long lasting impact. Third, faith-based – this is a big one for me…it’s tied to my faith which has fueled my decisions and directed my career path.” Erica teaches Sunday School because “Someone took the time to teach me and help me to learn about my faith.” She goes on about her role with Blessman, “Your whole life is your job. Ministry is your job. It’s not a job, it’s a ministry. Yes, Teach a Child to Fish is a community development program, but it’s also an opportunity to share Christ…to love on somebody.”

Pella, Iowa farmer Ward VanDyke, Erica, and Dr. Blessman learn about South African orange production

Iowa State University Global Resource Systems (globe.iastate.edu)

Erica ponders her experience, “GRS creates a bridge to other countries that have global issues, and connects students’ skills with those countries to literally change people’s lives. It’s such a great program. It’s not just to make money, to have a career…it’s using your skills, your engineering degree, food science, ag…teaching students to ask themselves, ‘how can I use my gifts to make long-lasting improvement in other people’s lives?’”

“What it did for me was connect my passion, my talents, my gifts to real world problems. GRS creates global citizens. I’m so passionate about that. GRS identifies global issues and their interconnections to understand the system or web they create while also developing students that see these interconnections and aren’t afraid of the mess. It creates systems thinking. I was trained as a systems thinker and can see the interconnections between world problems such as hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. Greater awareness of what’s going on in this world. Global issues like poverty, climate change, political systems. I do not fear the challenges humanity faces, but desire to untangle the mess. Yeah.”


“I did a mission trip to Guatemala my sophomore year in high school, and it married my interests in global communication & culture with food security and poverty…it’s the why behind my choices to the work I’m doing now. My first personal contact with real poverty was in a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, 6 hours from Guatemala City. You see it on TV, but seeing people with distended stomachs, protein deficiencies…which I only learned about later…at age 14, I saw that people didn’t all live like we do in the United States.”

“I also saw how these people respected their resources, which eventually tied to my GRS program. They respected the earth, the soil, the water. All these people had gardens! They had banana trees, and explained, ‘these are my sources of nutrition.’ I saw small scale sustainable ag methods. I saw aquaponics…you should definitely look it up! Basically creating an ecosystem to create something for nutrition. You have fish like tilapia and plants settled on the top on a grate. The plants’ root systems go into the water, taking up CO2 from fish respiration. The plants produce oxygen for the fish. The feces provide nutrition for the plants…and they had created these systems from what they could find…no buying things online…from trash they collected. It stuck in my mind…there’s something about this that is so powerful because people are using their own abilities and resources.”

“I grew up privileged, in a home with opportunity. It’s not fair that I was born into this space. In the States you’re born into so many things…education, health care…I’ve come to that realization much more living and working in South Africa. So if I can use the resources I was born into to help improve someone’s life, then that gives my life purpose.”


What effect does faith have on your work? “It’s primarily faith driven. If I can do something to balance the scales a little bit, I should reflect that. Not that I owe it, but that I want to share what I’ve been given with somebody else. Overall, my faith gives me purpose, it’s the reason I am who I am. I’m also called because of my faith to love my neighbor. If I’m called to love my neighbor, and my neighbor has less than I have, how is loving my neighbor staying at a distance and not doing anything to improve their quality of life if I have the tools to do so? To live in a different culture for extended time, to serve in another country…it just seemed all along like it was something I needed to do. Why wouldn’t you jump on your bike to go help a neighbor in need? Yes, it’s uncomfortable. I’m in a completely different place and culture, it’s really hard to make change happen and get things done here. Most people wouldn’t want the adversity.” For Erica, it’s “so worth it because my hands have direct impact on somebody.”


“I honestly would love one day to teach at university. The university campus is so full of people who are gifted, there to develop and enhance a skill they already have. I’m really passionate about people being aware of what’s going on in this world. I want to teach freshmen and sophomores at university to become global citizens and have a ripple effect. Find out where your niche is. Solve a specific problem. Make an impact. I love meeting people who have a passion. There are so many problems, so many things left to do. If I could help them understand how to link their passion to a real need…an accountant helping someone in Dubai or in the slums, or a teacher connecting with students who just want to read…in Cambodia. You have been given a specific talent or vision that can be used somewhere else beyond just in your own lives. We can eliminate poverty one problem at a time and make big global changes. If we would use our vision and talents for others, we’d have a group effort that would be unstoppable.”

March 28 Update

Erica taught about 400 primary school students about the vegetables planted at their schools and their nutritional benefits, using this full size cabbage as an example of what they can produce if they maintain their school gardens. Another perfect example of what is fulfilling for Erica?