Sarah Hanson: From Des Moines to Limpopo

Sarah Hanson College of Education alumnaIn September 2017, Sarah Hanson (B.A. ‘16) was on a plane to South Africa.

She needed to experience firsthand the story she would tell as part of her new role as director of US development for Blessman International, a non-profit organization with three campuses in the Limpopo province northeast of Johannesburg, which supports programs and services for children and families.  

“I came into it thinking I want to see all the animals, go on a safari,” she recalls. “I did all that, but what I really enjoyed was seeing all the kids. What hit home for me: They’re just normal kids,” she says. Living conditions are poor, she notes, with the economic aftermath of apartheid and the AIDS epidemic evident in what she calls a first-world country with third-world poverty. “They just need love, and they gave me more than I gave them. That left me wanting to move there immediately!”

She hasn’t … yet. But she believes she’s found her calling, just three years after graduation from UNI. 

Hanson enrolled as a public relations major, but soon switched to tourism and nonprofit management. Active in her church in West Des Moines, she thought church ministry might be her future. Then she served on the UNI Dance Marathon executive committee. “In one of my roles, I was in charge of philanthropy; that really started my thought that I could have a career in the nonprofit sector.”

Out of college, Hanson became special events coordinator for Children’s Cancer Connection, a large nonprofit serving children and families throughout cancer diagnosis and treatment. She worked on fundraising efforts and events, raising $800,000 one year.   

In fall 2016, she started looking ahead while working on her master’s degree at Drake University. “The first few years out of college are really formative--figuring out if what you got your degree in is what you actually want to do. The nonprofit sector for me was what I wanted, but I wanted a more global impact and more programming experience.”

Life-changing moment

Enter Blessman International. In a whirlwind 24 hours, her life changed.

Hanson saw a posting on a Des Moines community website and applied. That evening her future boss connected via Facebook and asked if she could make a 7 a.m. interview. “By 1 p.m., I was offered the job. When I accepted, I was asked if I could go to Africa a week later,” she says. 

Dr. Jim Blessman started Blessman International in 2001, selling his medical practice in Des Moines to become, with his wife, full-time missionaries. After traveling three years to 82 countries, they settled in Limpopo. Blessman now impacts thousands yearly through services such as providing reusable feminine hygiene kits; helping drill wells and build waterless toilets; supporting an orphanage, two churches and boarding schools; partnering on rice packet distributions; and operating an 18-acre educational working farm.

“The idea is we give the people a hand up, instead of just a hand out. We want to help them be sustainable and get their lives on track,”  Hanson says.

She runs the mission trips, which create awareness, revenue and fundraising support to help sustain Blessman’s many ventures, serving as the go-to person for everything from checking in with principals on outreach to nightly debriefs after a full day. 

More recently, Hanson began leading mission trips, including a group of 20 Grand View University nursing students. “Six of them had never been on a plane before, so South Africa was their first trip. It was really cool to see how they grew just by being with us for two weeks.” 

A new perspective

Hanson now views the world differently herself. “It’s made me expand my cultural perspective and opened my eyes to a perspective that I didn’t know I was missing," she says. "We’re not trying to change the people in South Africa, but to help them have better lives. It’s really been a rewarding experience.” 

Her advice to students: Study abroad. ““Working for a global non-profit has made me regret not going on a study abroad program,” she says. “I just lived in this bubble, and a lot of people do that. I was comfortable. Sometimes in South Africa, I’m not comfortable, but it pushes my perspective and horizons and gets me out of my comfort zone.”  

In March 2019, her fiance, family and friends joined Hanson on a mission trip. “It’s my favorite place in the world, with my favorite people in the world," she says. "It was like a puzzle piece that all fit together.” 

Hanson foresees a long career in global nonprofit management--and, perhaps, a move to South Africa. 

“This opportunity really fell into my lap,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have a good education and the experiences at UNI to build on, so it worked out for me.”