Beth and I are enjoying our time back in South Africa again. We are just finishing with a large team from Lutheran Church of Hope-Ankeny. We often say to each other that the current team is the best one that we have ever had but the last 2 weeks have been an incredible adventure for each and every team member. Sitting around our African camp fire we witnessed amazing spiritual and emotional growth in the lives of the people who came all this way to serve our beautiful children in Africa. We always expect the lives of the children we serve to be impacted and that always seems to happen. What many people don’t expect is what happens in the lives of the missionaries who come to serve with us.  On the team’s first evening with us, I told them that they were on the threshold of an incredible journey. Now, near the end of their time with us here in Africa, I am sure that they all agree that their lives will never be the same again.

We started the week with Pastor Scott Rains preaching in a public high school to 800 children. He spoke only about 20 minutes and the children were focusing on every word that he said. There were no cell phones out, no talking to each other, but they were honoring him by listening to everything he had to say. The principal in this school is a good Christian man and he specifically asked us to bring our team into the school to pray individually for every one of the senior students who would be taking their graduation exams the next day. The children here seem to believe in prayer much more that most of us in America. It is critical for the student to do well on their exams. They determine which students get to graduate, go on to college and who will receive scholarships. The students get quite nervous as the day of the exams approaches and that anxiety often impairs their ability to do their best. I could sense a definite peace and tranquility after each individual student was prayed for by our team. Many on our team had never prayed out loud for another individual, so it was an amazing experience both for the Americans and our African children.

Later in the week we did an optical outreach and tested the vision of 350 students and gave glasses to about 50 of them. This was a rural and extremely impoverished school. After we worked several hours serving the children, we met with the head master of the school. We could all easily tell how much he loved the children of this school. It was obvious that he was a good, godly man but he told us that he was getting so discouraged with the great need and limited resources available for him to help these children. Several of the children were from child-led homes and they would become tearful telling us that there was not enough food in their homes. They were embarrassed by the tattered condition of their school uniforms. The principal became overcome with tears as he expressed his gratitude for our team being there to assist his students. He was so discouraged that he was thinking of resigning, but now he seems much more hopeful. This team has pledged to raise funds for us to sew new school uniforms for the most impoverished children at this school. We will also be going back to this community to help with food issues.

There are so many other stories from this team that I would love to share but the general gist of it all is that when you travel half way around the world to help children who will never be able to repay you, it brings amazing joy into the hearts of everyone on the team. It is definitely better to give than receive.

Friends of Blessman International often ask me how many lives are being touched by their support. Although only God knows the exact number, I will do my best to tell you about the lives that I see being impacted through the support that many of you are sending our way.

You are helping us employ five staff members in Iowa and 34 people in South Africa. The staff in South Africa is significantly impacted because the unemployment rate nationwide is about 27%. In most of the rural villages that we are working in, however, it runs closer to 75%. Most of them have been with us for more than four years. The average family size in South Africa is four per household, yet they are often helping out extended family.

Over 600 North Americans have made the journey to South Africa to serve with us, and each and every one of them has been significantly impacted in a positive way. They often return home with a desire to continue serving in one way or another.

Those 600 plus people have impacted the children and adults in South Africa the most. With these outreaches, our team members make life-long memories with the individuals they serve.

Optical Outreaches:
We began serving in South Africa in 2004 with optical outreaches. To date, we have given free eye tests and eyeglasses to over 30,000 children and adults. Now that we offer several different outreach experiences, the number served per year is less than in the beginning, but we still serve 1500 to 2000 each year. Giving sight to a child in school has a significant impact on the child’s life and even impacts the entire family of each of these children. They cannot learn effectively if they cannot see well.

Nutritional Outreaches:
Blessman International is currently providing high quality nutrition to approximately 12,500 children multiple meals each week. Team members are particularly excited to be able to help with this, as many of them have helped package the rice packets with Meals from the Heartland in Iowa. When they get the opportunity to help cook and serve these meals, it completes the loop of meals packaged in Iowa and eaten in South Africa. It brings joy to everyone’s heart.

Shoe Outreaches:
Over the last seven years we have given away several thousand pairs of shoes and I have honestly lost count of the number of children blessed by this program. We are currently giving shoes to approximately 2000 children each year in partnership with Soles for Souls, Samaritan’s Feet, and Tom’s Shoes. We will use shoes from any ministry that will provide shoes for our children. Our team members wash the feet of each child getting a new pair of shoes and also pray with them.

Days for Girls:
Our donors are helping us provide feminine hygiene kits to impoverished young ladies. We have distributed a total of 7000 kits over the past three years. Beginning this year that number has grown to distributing 3000 kits each year with the help of our team members.

Churches and Spiritual Impact:

Lighthouse Church:
This church has been operating for the past 10 years and is healthy and mature. Approximately 200 people attend this church each week and this represents somewhere around 80 households.

Mountain View Church:
This church is in a rural area and has approximately 75 members attend each week representing about 40 households.

Sports Programs:
Our donors have helped our churches establish three soccer teams and two netball teams. These teams are impacting well over 100 children each week.

School Assemblies:
As a result of all of the great community outreaches Blessman International is doing in South Africa, four large high schools have opened their doors to our pastors to preach in the school assemblies each week. We are currently able to minister to over 4000 children each and every week that school is in session.

Del Cramer Child Development Center:
This is our pilot center where Lighthouse Church is located. There are 115 children registered to eat at this center each school day. Many of these children have been attending this program since it opened 10 years ago. Our computer learning center is housed here, and it is also where we are starting our new literacy program. Our agriculture programs also started here.

Agriculture Programs:
To help our feeding program be sustainable long term, our donors helped us to purchase a 150-acre farm where we are raising vegetables, poultry, and a few game animals. This program impacts the lives of all of the people in our nutritional program, so we will not count them again here. We are just now starting a new program called Teach a Child to Fish that will impact the lives of children in 10 rural schools as we teach them the love of agriculture and how to farm with excellence using their school gardens. This program will impact the lives of 3000 to 5000 children and also their families.

Water Project:
With the assistance of Hy-Vee and Rotary we were able to drill 13 wells in rural impoverished schools impacting the lives of 6500 children and their families. Going forward we have a pledge from Hy-Vee to help us drill 10 wells each year that will impact an additional 5000 children and their families each year.

In the last couple of years, we have constructed 70 toilet stalls to replace the dangerous, disgusting pit toilets found in many schools and daycares. Each toilet stall provides for 40 children, thus impacting 2800 children in rural schools so far. We currently have pledges from our generous donors to construct 25 new toilets each year, impacting 1000 children each year. Whenever clean water and sanitation is provided for a child, it also has a significant impact on each of their families as well.

As stated in the beginning of the blog, God keeps the books and these figures are simply the best estimate that we can give you. Our data collection is improving each year.

Employment 130 individuals
Teams 110 individuals per year
Optical 2000 individuals per year totaling over 30,000
Nutritional 12,500 each week (1.2 million meals per year)
These 12,500 children are impacted multiple times per week during the 40 weeks of the school year. Our total budget for everything we do is about $1.2 million. So for every dollar to our total budget a meal is provided.
Shoes 2000 individuals per year
Days for Girls 3000 individuals per year totaling over 7000
Church, Sports 4,375
and Assemblies
Teach a Child to Fish 5,000 individuals per year
These children are learning how to feed themselves and their families.
Water 5000 individuals per year totaling 10,000 so far with 20 wells
$30 per child will provide a complete water system in his school and these should last at least 30 years.
Sanitation 1000 individuals per year totaling 2800 so far at $3750 per stall
$100 per child will provide a toilet for a child at his or her school. These should easily last 25 to 30 years.

Total 35,115

Lutheran Church of Hope Ankeny Branch collected over 2000 books during their Vacation Bible School program and has donated them to Blessman International. We are planning to use this incredible gift to start a new literacy program and set up libraries in 25 of our feeding centers in South Africa. Volunteers will be organized to read to our children at Del Cramer Child Development Center using the Book of Hope as the main curriculum. Pastor Jonathan will oversee the program and a volunteer coordinator will be hired to recruit and train volunteers to do the reading program.

Prayer request:
Please pray as we look for long-term volunteers to assist us with our work in South Africa in the following areas:

Hospitality: This individual or couple would host teams and assist with outreaches with a 3 to 9 month commitment beginning in April 2019.

Farming and School Gardens: This individual would be working with 10 rural schools. It is a 2-year commitment teaching love for agriculture and farming with excellence.

Feeding Program: This individual will improve communication between Blessman International and just over 150 feeding centers that serve over 12,000 children weekly. They will also be responsible for getting videos and stories to share with our donors helping fund our feeding program. This is a 2-year commitment.

Beth and I are having an extended stay in the USA to deal with some medical issues. Soon after we arrived from South Africa, Beth fell down our basement stairs sustaining a concussion and fracture of the 7th vertebrae in her neck. Just this week her neurosurgeon released her to drive and stop wearing the hard-cervical collar. Just a week after she fell, I had surgery for total replacement of my right shoulder. It has been an interesting 6 weeks, but fortunately we are both back at about 90% normal and thankful to be alive and relatively pain free. We both hope to get out on the bike trails soon and enjoy this beautiful season in Iowa.

Reports from South Africa are good. We will be hosting 3 short-term mission teams in June and July. We look forward to seeing their stories and photos on social media over the next couple of months. We will also be hosting 2 nurses from Grandview University, 2 medical students from the University of Iowa, and an undergraduate student from the University of Northern Iowa. Hopefully, these young professionals will be able to help us fine tune our data collection program to document how much the children we are serving there are benefiting from our programs. We are building new toilets in many of the rural schools in South Africa to replace the dangerous, disgusting pit toilets. We had a successful spring gala in April, so our programs are going into the year well-funded.

Please be watching for the Hy-Vee commercial focusing on their One Step program that has funded a good portion of our water projects in Africa. We will soon be completing our 20th rural school water project.

In June, I will be heading to Toronto to the International Rotary Convention to gather additional support for our food insecurity program, especially focusing on teaching African children an appreciation for agriculture.

This is the first summer in many years that I have not spent most of my time in South Africa.  I am hoping to put lots of miles on my bike, riding the Iowa bike trails. I will also be completing the rehabilitation for my shoulder replacement.

Beth and I appreciate everyone’s prayers and support as we continue to recover from our medical issues.  She will be heading back to SA June 28th to work with our last 2 teams this summer.

Our personal lives have recently been interrupted by some significant medical issues. Over the years as a practicing physician I am used to getting calls at all hours of the day and night. When the phone rings in the middle of the night, it is rarely good news. The other night I was awakened by a call from South Africa at 2:30 AM. My first thought—Is our son okay? He is busy traveling in Mozambique and was out on the ocean fishing. Kabelo, who was the one calling me, is usually pretty good about remembering the time difference, so my first question to him was, “Is everything okay?” He let me know that our farm manager’s wife, had just died. This was news we had been expecting as she has been unresponsive for several days from a perforated ulcer. She was in her 70s and had just buried her second son six months previously. The stress of this loss is the likely explanation for the ulcer.

He also let me know that a new container of food packets had just arrived in port, but that the health department was refusing to release the container. Current expiration stickers were covering up old expiration dates and they were suspicious that we had just put new dates on old bags of rice. In reality what had happened was that Meals from the Heartland had used old bags, but the rice was fresh. For a while it was looking like we might have to pay a fine to get the container released, but after some effective negotiation by Kabelo the container was released. We will get an affidavit from MFTH and Convoy of Hope testifying that the new date is a legitimate expiration date.

Personally Beth and I have been experiencing some health issues. Beth fell down our basement stairs at home which resulted in a concussion and fracture of her 7th cervical vertebrae. For a while in the ER, I was concerned that she may have had some damage to her spinal cord, but it became apparent after a few hours that she will be fine. She will just have to wear a rigid cervical collar for six to eight weeks. Unfortunately, she will not be able to drive with the collar on. Praise the Lord that she is alive and has no paralysis!

The other medical issue that we are dealing with this week is that I will be having shoulder replacement surgery. Hopefully, this will go as well for me as it did a year ago when I had my other shoulder replaced. My surgeon came into the exam room and told me that he had good news for me. I said, “That is great, what is it?” He replied, “You only have two shoulders.” It will be nice to get this behind me and get on with whatever is next.

In just two weeks we have our annual spring gala where a good share of our funds for the year are raised. Our staff has been busy getting ready for that and we are anticipating our best gala ever. The quality of our staff in the US and in South Africa amazes me. They always do a wonderful job!

Beth is planning on going back to South Africa mid-May with an all-women’s team from St. Francis and then a Days for Girls team in June. I am planning on going to Toronto to the International Rotary Convention in June and then head back to Africa after that.

A final thought to ponder: At the end of the day, it is in the interruptions where real ministry occurs. I like to plan my days and nights to accommodate these interruptions.

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.

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.