True Blessings

Johanney Chongani coordinates production on 10 different crops, which total nearly 15 acres, at Jim Blessman's Mountain View Training and Research Farm. (Progressive Farmer image by Harlen Persinger)

Trying to feed thousands of children every day or lending a helping hand for basic needs to rural villages would be a major challenge for most folks. But, not for Jim Blessman and his wife, Beth. Through their Blessman International Campus, they provide invaluable assistance to rural communities in South Africa.

Founded in 2001, the nonprofit organization, located on the Shikwaru Game Farm, just outside of Mokopane, conducts multiple sustainable and outreach programs through short-term Christian mission projects.

"Our underlying goal focuses on offering South African children and young adults eternal hope through faith formation and programs to feed hungry people, foster food-secure communities and offer dignity through provision of basic water and sanitation needs," says Jim, a retired Des Moines, Iowa, pain specialist. The ministry also provides after-school programs and necessities like shoes, eyeglasses and personal hygiene products. Other needs are met working with local orphanages and churches.

U.S. operations are located in Urbandale, Iowa, while the outreach activities are based in Limpopo, South Africa. The core of the Blessmans' success is setting up short-term mission trips for U.S. volunteers.

RESEARCH FARM PROVIDES RESOURCES

One shining component for Blessman is the 120-acre Mountain View Training and Research Farm. Established in 2015, it's the centerpiece for supplying fresh vegetables to the mission's feeding programs. It also keeps area farmers abreast of the latest farming methods and provides employment opportunities for local South Africans. The site also has lodging for medical and college interns, and other youth groups.

Johanney Chongani coordinates production on 12.5 acres, raising red beetroots, cabbage, lettuce, green beans, butternuts, green peas, spinach, green bell peppers, maize and 400 tomato plants. A native of Zimbabwe, he works the red clay soil with a 90-hp New Holland tractor and various tillage tools. To maintain consistent yields, area farmers take soil samples, follow fertility requirements and constantly rotate crops.

Maize is planted in September and harvested before the end of December. Seeds are dropped by hand nearly 3 inches apart to match the openings on the drip irrigation lines. Plant population is 15,000 per 2.47 acres. As the crop develops, water from a nearby reservoir is applied three times a day. Crews use herbicides to control weeds and apply insecticides, as needed.

"To improve quality and raise more high-value crops, our next step is producing our own seedlings, not only for this farm but other community projects," Chongani adds. "Presently, global grants, rotary contributions and individual donations help defray some of these costs."

A poultry concrete block building on-site houses 320 layers. And, establishing a captive breeding program for game animals has proven to be another viable profit center for the mission. Funds received from marketing Nyala and Sable antelope, hunting and photo safaris help create more diversified projects throughout the area.

"With this farm, we have built a strong and sustainable program that is recognized by the South Africa Department of Agriculture," Chongani notes. "During the past few years, Iowa State University has become a major player for us by serving as a valuable information source that donates time, enhances research projects in all phases of crop production and lends technical support. Improving the learning curve and bottom line is paramount as we continually move forward with each new endeavor."

CHILDREN'S CAMPUS

Another location under the umbrella of Blessman International is the Del Cramer Children's Campus. It's situated on the fringe of Sekgakgapeng, a large, semiurban rural township in Limpopo Province, 150 miles north of Pretoria. Social responsibility and sustainability are the true cornerstones for this site, named after Beth's father.

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"It primarily serves as an after-school resource and playground for children. Kids ages 4 to 18 must be registered to receive charitable meals each week," says Dustin Blessman, president of Blessman Board of Trustees, South Africa.

The daily menu consists of bread, cooked rice, local maize fixed like grits, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, beef, chicken and, on occasion, apples and oranges. Donated meat from a nearby hunting safari game farm, NB Safari, along with the farm's eggs help increase the protein in the children's diets.

Five shade net greenhouses with drip irrigation are used to grow vegetables on raised beds year-round -- spinach, red beetroots, carrots and tomatoes. Four women from the village handle the planting and harvesting. Up to 800 chickens are also raised on the property. Day-old chicks purchased from area suppliers are housed in three 15- x 40-foot concrete block houses.

"Our staff of four ladies are responsible for the birds. With proper training from poultry experts, they have reduced mortality rates from 70 to 10%," Dustin adds. "Local families can come to the houses and take home one bird twice a week for 60 rand ($5) each. Besides helping combat food shortages and improving the lives of all the children, this livestock enterprise solidifies additional income for the complex."

Locals can purchase fresh bread and cakes from the kitchen. The mission's pilot training program includes baking 40 loaves of white and wheat bread each week, which are sold for 9 rand (75 cents) each. The microenterprise provides employment for several individuals.

Children on the campus have access to an internet cafe where instructors help them develop computer skills. The outlet remains open in late afternoon and evenings for the community. Access to this technology is a real perk for the 25,000 village residents, since none of the families have personal computers.

"It's critical to gain support and implement new programs to improve all facets of this mission and the long-term quality of education for the children," Dustin notes. "However, it's imperative that we continue to monitor and assist the youth when they are no longer able to come here. Establishing that type of win-win situation begins by expanding the base of donors to help bring additional study opportunities."

JOYFUL SKILLS AND INCOME

Tucked inside a separate building at the mission's welcome center on the Shikwaru Game Farm is the Lethabo Sewing and Training Center. It's a vital component of Blessman's International Campus because it reaches beyond the borders of the African continent. Every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., four local women learn new skills and express their creativity by stitching together clothing items and other accessories that are sold to support children's programs in the rural area.

The room is filled and racks piled high with clutch purses, shoulder bags, table placemats, book covers, pillowcases, hats, aprons, miniskirts, stylish dresses, ties and colorful school uniforms. Rhino, elephants, giraffes, hippos, monkeys, antelopes, lions and cheetahs comprise their assorted inventory of stuffed animals. The center also produces school uniforms for children who can't afford them.

"Lethabo means happiness in Sepedi, a local South African language," manager Hilda Chongani says. "Being able to work in a safe environment, earn a paycheck, help feed our families and send our children and grandchildren to school is a lifesaver for all of us."

The center has four straight-line sewing machines. There is also an overlocker machine that has two needles, one for stitching and one for sewing, an elastication machine to add dressings plus a buttonhole maker. Nearly all the cloth is purchased from local shops.

The women working here are passionate about making clothes and constantly share ideas for new creations. For example, Francina Boshomane loves to make African dresses. Helen Mokotho prefers plain sewing and visualizing what she can do with her hands. Maria Hlongwana loves to sew pants because they are easy to make. Occasionally, the power goes out, so everyone switches over to make bead necklaces and bracelets. Items are marketed and sold locally in South Africa and are also available online in the U.S.

"Visitors and folks that come on mission trips prefer earth tones, our distinct fabric colors and unique designs," Chongani says. "I feel fortunate for the opportunity to earn a fair wage, learn new skills, be employed in an environment that I have a passion for and, in a subtle way, help strengthen the fabric of the community."

EXPANDING HORIZONS

Nathan Davis welcomed the opportunity to visit South Africa through an internship program while attending Iowa State University in 2014. "It was a stimulating experience and a real eye-opener for me. There's such a stark contrast across the country, especially seeing extreme wealth and poverty side by side," he recalls.

"The world of agriculture ranged from massive farms to folks living in third-world conditions and government housing faced with a lack of clean water and variable sanitary needs," Davis adds.

While on the Blessman International Campus, Davis, who later earned a master's degree in food sciences and global resource systems, conducted hydrology experiments and took core soil samples that were analyzed for quality and health. He later returned on his own mission trip and asked a soil science professor to accompany him.

"I gained the perspective that farming is a universal language, and South Africa was a country that offered so much diversification. I wanted to go the extra mile and help the villages improve food security, provide adequate nutrition in the children's feeding program and create an uptick in their overall economy," he adds. "Glancing into the future, it's imperative to produce a variety of food products that can be raised and utilized by the general population."

Faithful Friends

Jim Blessman received his medical degree from the University of Iowa in 1972 and served as a board-certified family physician and practitioner before specializing in pain management. After retiring in 2001, he and his wife, Beth, founded Blessman International Inc. The couple visited more than 70 countries on short-term mission trips and began a relationship with Jacques van Bommel, the founder and director of Reaching a Generation (RaG).

Through faith formations, programs and a helping hand from many companies, their ministry has developed into its own entity to offer South African children and young adults eternal hope and God’s love.

The organization operates centers that feed 7,500 children weekly with assistance from Meals from the Heartland and Convoy of Hope, along with the support from Hy-Vee grocery stores and local rotary groups. The ministry also digs wells to provide a safe source of water for schools and communities, along with building environmentally friendly toilets called Enviro Loos.

Each year, Blessman International sends 11 service teams, primarily from Iowa, to help distribute reading glasses, shoes and reusable feminine hygiene kits provided by Days for Girls. During their 12 days in South Africa, the volunteers also pitch in to help with farming activities and building projects.

Funding for this bevy of projects comes through donations from individuals, corporations and foundations. Their annual fund-raising gala, held in April in Des Moines, brings in more than $500,000. All tax-deductible gifts are used to purchase supplies and pay for the ministry’s expenses.

The Blessmans work with innovative farmers, teachers and parents to foster food security. Their goal is for every child in Limpopo, South Africa, to have access to basic human services within the next 10 years. For more information and to support this organization, visit www.blessmaninternational.org.

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