Janne Ritskes ’80 grew up in Ontario, near the border of upstate New York, during the Vietnam War era. She remembers watching the horrors of the war unfold on television, including the Cambodian genocide that killed almost a quarter of Cambodians. By age 13, Ritskes knew God would call her to Cambodia; she just didn’t know how or when it would happen.
After “flunking out of high school,” Ritskes spent a decade working in business before enrolling at Calvin as an adult student on academic probation. Her time on campus both challenged her and prepared her for overseas humanitarian work. “Calvin is where I started my career. It’s the center of the church where I grew up. But I also had a lot of fun challenging some of the beliefs.” At Calvin she pressed classmates and professors alike to wrestle with the tension between belief and action—living a life in service to God and others wasn’t an option in Ritskes’ mind; it was a requirement. “Faith is not an intellectual exercise; it’s what you live,” she says.
After graduating, Ritskes worked for nonprofits on the continents of Asia and Africa. In 1994, she traveled to Cambodia, with the hope of supporting community development there. “When I arrived, there were guns everywhere. Life was cheap, and people lived in indescribable poverty,” she says. Her first home in Cambodia had only front walls—the rest was covered in netting. She shared it with “every kind of insect, bat, rat and snake” and, of course, it was prone to flooding. But Ritskes hadn’t come seeking a life of comfort, and the people she met only grew her determination to help. “Cambodians are a beautiful people—kind and compassionate.”
Cambodians are also survivors, says Ritskes. “They went through unbelievable hurt, genocide. At the end of the day, they had no sense of self. Their god was a very angry god. But I knew that’s not true because they’re God’s children, too. When I went to Cambodia, I saw people whose image was buried, and our job was to bring that back out.”
Ritskes began small. She created what she called the “savings and dream cycle,” a 10- week coaching program that restored agency and dignity to impoverished Cambodians by showing them how they could save what little they had to meet a tangible dream. Of- ten, they longed for simple commodities, such as a bath towel, that could improve their quality of life. Once they saved for and made a purchase with their own income, Ritskes helped them set a new goal. This simple yet effective program became the roots of a nonprofit organization that Ritskes and her Cambodian staff would eventually establish, called Tabitha.
Over the years, Tabitha grew its projects to include clean water and agriculture initiatives. It built schools and women’s health clinics. Ritskes’ own experience with breast cancer prompted her to build a women’s cancer hospital, the first of its kind in Cambodia. That hospital is now in the process of becoming Cambodia’s national cancer hospital.
Though she has received many awards for her work, including a Medal of Order from the Prime Minister of Cambodia, the highest award given to a foreigner for service to the country, Ritskes remains humble. “I am so blessed, so grateful for the life I’ve gotten to lead,” she says.
That also includes the blessing of being a mother. At 50, Ritskes adopted her daughter, Miriam, after Miriam’s biological mother died of AIDS. Ritskes says she heard God tell her one night, “She’s yours.” Miriam, too, was HIV positive. Ritskes recalls how watching her little girl grow shifted community conversations about helping children with AIDS. “Miriam was at the meetings. And it changed the way we talked, because we had been put- ting the emphasis on AIDS rather than the child. Very quickly, the child who happened to have AIDS changed the way we saw the problem and what we did.” By three-and-a- half Miriam no longer tested positive.
Ritskes lives life leaning on God for every need, trusting his provision, one courageous step at a time. “I don’t know how to live any other way,” she says. She challenges everyone to do the same. “Dare to live holistically. Dare to walk with God. Dare to be who you’re created to be. And you can change the world.”