Jim Blessman, MD, Ambassador to the Children of South Africa
This is my first effort at creating a blog site. I decided that at age 64 it is high time for me to learn to use this wonderful means of communicating with many of the people interested in the work we are doing with children in the beautiful country of South Africa.
This first entry will be a brief history of why and how we began working here, but the main reason for this is to give those of you who are interested a report of our work here for the first quarter of 2009. I will do my best to send quarterly updates to all of you who do not hit the unsubscribe button.
I retired early from my medical practice at age 55 in 2001 to start doing fulltime medical mission work around the world. I had enjoyed a successful medical practice in central Iowa and had achieved all of the goals I had set for myself as a young man. I married my current wife Beth in 1989 and became a Christian soon after that. I began going on short-term mission trips in the early 90’s and traveled to over 60 countries over the next several years. I felt God nudging me closer and closer to going into fulltime medical mission work each time I would go on one of the short-term trips. Finally in 2001, shortly before 9/11, God gave me a very clear signal that I was to walk away from the medical practice and career that I had loved so much and walk down the unknown path of becoming a fulltime medical missionary. Having an entrepreneur spirit all of my life, I formed my own not-for-profit organization, Blessman Medical Ministries. Prior to making this major life change, I read the book Half Time by Bob Buford, which was recommended to me by my good friend Gary Rosberg. I knew that I wanted this next phase of my life to be one of significance rather than one of what the world might consider to be success. I had enjoyed that type of success and loved it, but at the end of the day it was all a bit empty.
The first few years the ministry that my wife and I developed together consisted of continuing to go on short-term mission trips, but instead of joining other teams, we began organizing our own teams, primarily with churches from multiple Christian denominations in Iowa. We were leading an average of one mission trip each month and traveling over 100,000 miles per year primarily to third-world countries much in need of the medical care that we were offering. After doing many of these short-term trips with hundreds of people, I realized that even though we were pleasing God by helping people become followers of Christ, the long term impact, especially medically, was very superficial and limited in really changing people’s lives for the long haul. It was about this time in 2004 that I met my good friend, Jacques van Bommel, in South Africa. From the time that I met Jacques, the Lord just seemed to knit our hearts together and gave us the same vision to serve the children of South Africa. Jacques is the founder and director of Reaching a Generation (RaG). It was also about this time that the focus of our ministry changed from being a medical trip ministry to an optical trip ministry. I found that with the optical trips we could involve more laypeople and that a new pair of proper eyeglasses had a much longer benefit to people who needed them than a bottle of pills.
Beth started traveling with me on all of the trips after our youngest daughter graduated high school, and we stopped focusing on the world and instead narrowed our focus to the children of South Africa. We have now been able to give eyeglasses to nearly 20,000 children in South Africa, prayed with nearly all of them, and listened to the stories of their sometimes very tragic lives. Most all of them suffer from chronic malnutrition, many of them have watched their parents die from HIV/AIDS, and many of them are abused by people taking advantage of them. We have done our best to teach all of these precious children how to keep themselves safe from contacting the AIDS virus. Each of the children we have seen have been given a copy of the Book of Hope which is an age appropriate and culturally appropriate copy of God’s Word.
In 2006 we initiated feeding programs for several hundred orphans and vulnerable children providing well over 1 million meals to the children of Southern Africa in the last 12 months.
These two strong programs, the optical program and the feeding program, have won us considerable favor with the government of South Africa in the Departments of Education and Health at the Provincial level, which enable us to now initiate many other programs.
Last year we started a medical student exchange program between a medical school in Des Moines Iowa, Des Moines University, and a medical school here in South Africa at University of Limpopo whereby students from Iowa come to South Africa for clinical rotations. So far 13 students have been able to take advantage of these rotations and all of them have reported excellent medical and cultural experiences. Just this last month the president of DMU, former Governor Terry Brandstad and the Dean of Students, Dr. Kendal Reed, and Associate Dean of Global studies Dr. Yogesh Shah all traveled here to South Africa to participate in our first international medical conference training South African physicians here at Shikwaru Game Lodge. After this conference we were able to participate in the signing of an official agreement between the Provincial Department of Health and Social Development of Limpopo and Des Moines University. This agreement will permit the training of many more African and American medical students in each other’s institutions. DMU is already planning to expand this program to include regular obstetric rotations for all of their senior medical students. The students will be able to come to Mokopane Hospital near our game reserve and deliver many babies which will help them in their training and also help with the severe shortage of healthcare providers here in South Africa.
Three years ago the Lord blessed Reaching A Generation with a beautiful game reserve in the province of Limpopo. It is a 3000 acre game farm with several nice lodges with sleeping accommodations for our frequent guests. Over the last three years we have been able to improve the quality and value of the farm considerably by adding a luxury tent camp and improving all of the other camps. Jacques was also able to build a beautiful home and office complex for his family and Beth and I have done the same. We currently have 7 people living with us and sharing our work space. In addition we are constructing an ambassador campus that will house three ambassador families that will be working with us long-term, nine out of twelve months every year.
There are many other programs that we are working with here in South Africa such as a new leadership camp to be offered for some of the brightest and best students in South Africa in grades 9 through12 starting in June of this year. We also work with Reaching a Generation in training the teachers of South Africa how to teach their students general life skills. Basically this is a program to help the teachers teach the students what their parents should be teaching them about life. This was initiated because of the terrible AIDS epidemic ravaging this part of the world. Southern Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection of any place in the world.
This year we are also starting a pen pal program called Letternet to teach these same values to orphan children in the public schools. Each child will be partnered with a Christian family in South Africa in partnership with the Department of Education and their teachers.
This has been a somewhat brief summary of where we have come from and what we are doing here. Our mission statement in general is to Please God by serving the children of Southern Africa.
My next blog entry will be some photos and the stories of our work here for the first 3 months of 2009.