Dennis ’58 and Jeni Plooy Hoekstra ’57 have been bridge builders for most of their lives. Their resources for such connecting work have included people, computers, even cows at times.
“If you’re a bridge person, you’re always finding these surprising people who want to be involved but are just waiting to be asked,” said Dennis. “What we’ve done is find a way to tie resources and needs together.”
For the last 25 years, the Hoekstras have served as volunteers, most recently for Partners Worldwide, an organization that aspires to end poverty through business.
The Hoekstras first became involved when Jeni was introduced to a need for computer-skills training in Kenya. Having taught business classes for the second half of her career—including typing and computers—Jeni was intrigued with the prospect.
Eight months later Dennis and Jeni made their first trip to Kenya, one of many they would make over the next 25 years. While Jeni has continued to teach computer classes over the years, Dennis became involved in a variety of projects, including what are now Timothy Leadership Training Institute and Partners Worldwide.
Dennis developed relationships with many talented people after having spent his career as a teacher, college administrator (including eight years at Calvin as a religion and education professor and assistant dean and six years as president of Trinity Christian College), and executive director of the Barnabas Foundation (a nonprofit that helps Christians give more effectively to churches and ministries). He drew upon this network while making his first few trips to Kenya.
Leadership training for pastors was a need that Dennis recognized immediately. “Most of the pastors were not very well educated,” said Dennis. He led a training seminar himself but realized much more was needed.
“My idea was to get the Calvin seminary more involved worldwide,” he said. “Two faculty members began coming to Kenya to teach, but there was still too much demand.” Dennis then enlisted the help of pastors to help write curriculum that could be taught to local pastors and in turn, they could teach other pastors. The curriculum, originally called Project Africa, became tremendously successful, outgrowing Africa and spreading to more than 40 countries, now known as Timothy Leadership Training Institute.
But beyond spreading the gospel, Dennis and Jeni recognized another need: economic development. “What people need to know about Jesus is that he brought his kingdom here to renew life to its wholeness,” said Dennis. “The kingdom is much broader than the church.”
So Dennis set out to tie resources and needs together in Kenya. For example, he met Simon, a Kenyan, who was operating a metal fabrication shop that employed 10 to 15 people. “I asked him, ‘What do you need to expand your business?’ He said he needed to know how to do plating and polishing. So I found someone that could teach him these skills.”
After two weeks of training in the U.S., Simon reorganized his business, which is now flourishing. “Churches and communities are full of people who have really important resources, but no one has ever figured out how to use those resources without just asking for a check,” said Dennis.
Through Partners Worldwide, Dennis has helped dairy farmers learn techniques for better milk production, helped start and organize businesses, and helped businesses market their products. And Dennis and Jeni, at age 87 and 85, respectively, show no signs of slowing down. “About the time people are at their peak in terms of experience, opportunities, influence, and circumstances, they retire,” said Dennis. “So much of this can be stewarded into other sectors; why waste it?”
Added Jeni: “Whatever I do, God blesses it. When you see what you do improves the lives of others, you’re inspired to keep doing what you can.”