The Christmas season is so often filled with stress and is a difficult time for many of us. We tend to remember joyful Christmases of our childhood, when we were filled with the anticipation of receiving our favorite gifts from this mystical Santa Claus. Then as adults the real-world hits us and we learn that Santa Claus is not real, it is all a made-up story. We live in a broken world where many of us have lost loved ones through death or divorce, or economic hardship has entered into our lives. We may be working in a job that is distasteful. Drugs or alcohol may be destroying the lives of our children or another loved one. On the news the talking heads are talking about a boarder wall and shutting down the government. In Africa the news is filled with discussion of land reform. On the very first Christmas, Mary was likely concerned that her fiancé would reject her when he found out that she was pregnant. She and Joseph were forced to travel long distances and ended up homeless in Bethlehem.

Where is this Peace on Earth that we hear about during the Christmas season?

For me personally, I have been able to find joy and peace by helping others, especially blessing people who are unable to return the favor. Just yesterday, I was at a Quick Trip and a gentleman was sitting in his car saying help me, I need help. I approached his window and told him that I was not sure that I could help but asked him what was going on. He told me that he had just lost his billfold and was out of gas and needed to get to Guthrie Center as soon as possible. I usually do not help pan handlers, but the Spirit led me to give him $20. It was nice to see the joy this gave him and me as well. He promised me to send a donation to our ministry when he finally got home. I may never see my $20 again but I received $20 worth of joy in this one case.

I am pretty sure that one of the main reasons that I enjoy doing mission work in Africa so much is that it is an opportunity to daily help many people who can never repay me. Whenever I have the opportunity to make someone else’s life better my life gets better.

So, at the end of the day there really is “Peace and Joy on Earth”. It’s all in our own attitude and how we choose to experience life as it is presented to us.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

Doc


I pray that all of you had a nice Thanksgiving. Since Beth and our son in law were both recovering from surgery, we had HyVee roast our turkey. It was not very traditional, but we had a nice day with friends and family. Beth is coming along well recovering from her foot surgery.

We had a nice appreciation event at Terrace Hill and enjoyed the evening with 80 of our close friends. This has become a Thanksgiving tradition for our ministry. Unfortunately, our Governor was not able to join us this year. We are still hopeful that she will be able to join us in South Africa again in the next year or two.

Right after Thanksgiving, Beth and I flew to Phoenix to spend a couple of weeks enjoying family time with two of her sisters who live there, as well as many of our friends who live in this area. I will be speaking at a couple of Rotary Clubs and a few churches while in Phoenix. Two of our Blessman International board members live in the Phoenix area, so it has become a little satellite center for us.

There is not much news coming from South Africa this time of year, as nearly all of our staff take their leave time in December to spend with their own families, and we have no scheduled service or mission teams arriving until January. Dustin is making arrangements to drill our last five wells for this year and building an additional 25 toilets. We are praying for funding to help us get our own well drilling rig to make our water and sanitation projects even more efficient. At Mountain View Farm we are building an outdoor thatched classroom for our Teach a Child to Fish program. We will soon have photos of this for you. Our layer production at Mountain View Farm is going well and has been giving us nearly 300 eggs per day. We would like to double the size of our current operation and also add 10 cows and a bull to livestock operation. We are trusting the Lord for funding for all of this.

Our mission and service teams are filling up fast for next year and we are anticipating over 130 people serving with us in South Africa in 2019. Our staff in Iowa is busy with year-end fundraising activities and so far we are on track to meet out budgeted goals thanks to all of our great friends who love and support the work we are doing in South Africa.

 

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.

Employment:
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.

Teams:
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.

Outreaches:
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.

Sanitation:
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.

Summary:
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.

 

When God created Adam, he saw that he needed a helpmate so He created Eve. I have been thinking a lot about the value of a helpmate this last month while Beth has been in South Africa hosting a couple of our mission teams. She is still my helpmate and is working hard to help me, but I am missing the closeness and fellowship that we have. It is rare that we are apart even for a day or two. I do not have the same joyful spirit that I usually have when Beth is with me. I am sure that our staff will be happy when she gets back from Africa. I have been here in the US since April and plan to return to South Africa in October. This is the longest that I have been out of South Africa for many years. It has been good for our son, Dustin, to be out of my shadow and managing the day-to-day operations of our ministry in South Africa—he is doing a really nice job.

A few good things have been happening with our ministry over the last couple of months. We got our labor disputes at Del Cramer Children’s Development Center resolved and things are running well there. Amber, the new director at Del Cramer, had a baby girl and Kabelo and Suzetha had their second daughter. Our family is growing!

Our medical school clinical rotations with the University of Iowa got started this summer with our first two students enjoying their clinical experience with us. For some reason, all three of our mission teams this summer have consisted primarily of females and that is why Beth and her sister, Paula, have been in Africa without me hosting these teams.

We were blessed with good news from Hy-Vee who pledged financial support to help us drill 10 wells each and every year in the future. We also were just awarded a Rotary Grant for $134,000 to teach African children the love of agriculture and give them agricultural skills using their school gardens.

Our new sports programs of soccer and netball are up and running well. Participating in sports gives the children an improved sense of self-esteem and pride in their own school.

I am currently busy looking for funding for some additional long-term missionaries to work with us. We are hoping to have one young person, specializing in agriculture, to help us roll out our “Teach a Child to Fish” program, along with teaching agriculture. We are also looking for a second intern or young missionary to work full-time with our nutritional programs.

We are always looking for quality people to come to Africa to serve with us on either a short-term or long-term basis.

We have some exciting news regarding our nutritional program in South Africa. For the last seven years, in partnership with Meals from the Heartland and Convoy of Hope and many generous donors, we have been providing food security for 7,500 children in South Africa. Our vision in the early days was to provide food security, along with other child development services, to impoverished children in rural South Africa. Because of our interest in education, sports, and spiritual development, we focused mainly on a narrow age band of children between ages 12 to 14, which made the sports and educational programing much easier.

Over the years I have gained a great appreciation of the first 1000 days of a child’s life in providing sound nutrition and a nurturing, loving, environment for complete child development. Thus, we are focusing new efforts and attention on baby shelters, training for new moms, and nutrition and general support for preschool-age children. We will continue our nutritional support for impoverished children of all ages. We recently did a thorough evaluation of the children that we are helping, and we can now report to you, our donors, that you are helping us provide nutritional support to over 11,000 children per week! In addition to the rice packets that Convoy of Hope and Meals from the Heartland have been helping us with, we will soon be providing powdered infant formula and vitamins to needy infants and toddlers.

To further improve the quality of our nutritional program and to also improve the feedback that we are able to offer to our donors, I am seeking funding for a full-time nutritional consultant to oversee the feeding centers to which we are providing food packets. This new staff person will help us collect metric data on a long-term basis on many of the children that we are helping to scientifically document the benefit of the programs that we are investing in. This new staff person will also help us do a better job of documenting with videos, photos and stories about the children who are being served by our programs. This will help us to secure much needed funding to expand even further the number of children that we are able to assist.

For a few years now we have had many donors who have chosen to support our ministry monthly. With increased data and feedback about the children that our donors are helping, I am confident that many more people, and even corporations, will desire to step forward and be a part of this great program.

In my next blog, I will address how we are teaching the older children about gardening with excellence through school gardens to instill a love of agriculture, along with learning an important skill.

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 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.