Alumni Profile • Dennis '58 and Jeni Plooy Hoekstra '57
Showing up and getting out of the way

Jeni Hoekstra
Jeni Hoekstra at the Nairobi Training Center

A garbage man as missionary? Or a machinist who knows the mechanics of metal plating?

Of course, say Dennis ’58 and Jeni Plooy Hoekstra ’57.

“What I found working at the Barnabas Foundation,” said Dennis, “is that people with everyday secular skills have never thought, have never been told, that they can be engaged in ministry. And successful business people often say they feel they’re looked at as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

Giving ordinary people opportunities to be restorers has been the passion of the Hoekstras for the past decade.

It began on a ski lift in Colorado, when Jeni found herself riding with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) director for Kenya. Hearing that Jeni taught high school students computer and typing skills, he said, “I wish you’d come to Kenya and help us.”

The Hoekstras took early retirement and went. Jeni taught computer basics to Africans. With Dennis’ career in administration — first at Calvin, then as president of Trinity Christian College, then as executive director of the Barnabas Foundation — he was able to look around and see the needs in Kenya for economic development and job creation.

Since that first trip, the Hoekstras figure they’ve volunteered around 11,000 hours each, both of them working through the Grand Rapids-based Partners for Christian Development, an organization that cooperates closely with CRWRC.

“The whole idea is to find in developing countries people who are able to create jobs and generate economic activity. Then we find resources on this side to partner them with,” Dennis explained.

By resources, he doesn’t mean people who simply write checks. He means people willing to share their business and trade skills and mentor new entrepreneurs, empowering them to expand their businesses and create more jobs.

Dennis Hoekstra (r.)
Dennis Hoekstra with Simon Ngeru outside his machine shop

So, for example, last summer Dennis met Clive Wafukho, a Kenyan Christian entrepreneur who needed help expanding his garbage incineration and recycling business. As soon as Dennis got back home to Grand Rapids, he got on the phone to Bill Allen, director of Kent County’s Solid Waste and Energy Services — a man he had never met. In October, Wafukho came to stay with the Hoekstras for a week, and Allen walked him through the Kent County garbage system, answering questions and helping him contact other people in waste-handling businesses in Michigan, Illinois and Iowa.

“We want to be the catalyst,” Dennis said. “We bring people together, get them involved with each other, and then, as quickly as possible, get out of the way.” After meeting an entrepreneur from a developing country, American mentors often travel to that country to see the budding operation firsthand. The relationship deepens.

In June the Hoekstras were honored with the Call to Service Award, the highest level of recognition in President Bush’s Volunteers for Prosperity initiative. The award cited the couple as “heroes of the cause of human dignity.”

Jeni and Dennis describe themselves and their work a little differently: “We just try to find out where God is at work in the world and show up.”