Changemaker from St. Thomas to South Africa – Newsroom
As Jake Hodge ’21, a biology major at the University of St. Thomas, neared graduation, he packed his things and prepared for an experience that would set him apart from his fellow graduates at more than one title.
He was not returning to his home in Brainerd, Minnesota, or anywhere within 8,000 miles. No winter jacket would accompany him on his journey, even if he left in the middle of winter. The only things he needed for a trip like this were a passport, work boots, and a heart for humanity. His next stop was South Africa.
Hodge currently lives just north of Cape Town with a host family. He volunteers for two organizations focused on sustainability and agriculture. He lends a hand to the locals when and where he can, ultimately living the values instilled in him throughout his school career.
Why sustainability is important
Hodge grew up in a home where he was “pierced” with questions about science and environmentalism and learned the value of using his acquired knowledge to help others. His parents both teach in the local elementary and middle school system in Brainerd.
“I remember that in college, as my father is a science teacher, he read press articles [to me]”, Hodge said. “One day he was reading an article in Popular Mechanics, which I remember very well, about global warming. I was in sixth or seventh grade and I remember saying, ‘That seems to be a very big problem,” and he replied, “A lot of people don’t pay attention to it.”
He sees this as the spark of his passion for sustainability that will eventually take him around the world.
A love for humanity that knows no borders
Besides sustainability, Hodge also has a heart for philanthropy, or “loving humanity” as he calls it. While at St. Thomas, Hodge exemplified a unique approach to her education by balancing school with several charity-oriented extracurricular activities.
He was a 2020 Tommie Corps scholarship student, volunteering as a food preparer with Catholic Charities for 150 hours during the summer of his sophomore year.
“It was really fun. I loved meeting and communicating with the staff and customers. Once I was done with the erudite student [opportunity] I just continued to work there,” he said.
Hodge eventually joined Shelter Crew, the campus club that provides volunteer opportunities with Catholic charities, providing transportation and connecting students to the organization. He then served as a student leader for the club.
“I started out as a volunteer. They do convenience stores with products north of Minneapolis. Many small stores do not have access to fresh produce at a reasonable price. Now I volunteer for BrightSide and am on the paid side of the organization,” he explained.
Hodge volunteers with what BrightSide calls the pay-what-you-can program. This program collects fees from the organization’s internal services, such as their paid subscription product delivery system, and uses the accumulated money to provide the same service to those who cannot afford the products.
As an employee of BrightSide, Hodge puts his management and leadership skills to the test on the operations side of the organization ensuring orders arrive on time, product orders are where they need to be. be and more.
Hodge also played club tennis, was a member of the on-campus pre-medical club, and conducted research in plant and soil science during his undergraduate studies.
“Jake is a great example of someone who understands that volunteer work and community service is not just a lifelong commitment, but also a learning tool,” said Casey Gordon, the Center’s senior program manager. for the Common Good.
The crises in South Africa
Although South Africa’s bountiful hiking opportunities pleased Hodge, what got him excited about living in Africa were the mountains.
“Initially I was going to go on vacation, then I realized I was going to have five or six months off before I started applying to medical school,” he explained.
After pitching the idea to biology teacher and BrightSide club director Adam Kay, he was able to connect with a community in need of farmer support and put some of his skills to good use.
“I just thought, if I have to go on a trip, I might as well have something to do while I’m there.”
Kay, being well connected to South Africa through onboard study groups, mentored Hodge and helped him set up a volunteer program with the Abalimi Bezekhaya organization.
For Abalimi Bezekhaya, Hodge works in African townships, informal settlements that began when the apartheid government forced people to relocate in the 80s and 90s. One of the biggest takeaways for him was to realize that the colonial government caused many problems that people have to deal with, including mass poverty and poor harvesting habits. Hodge said about half of the residences in this area live in corrugated iron and zinc shacks.
“They moved people to really, really uninhabitable ground and bad areas called Cape Flats. The one I worked in is a colony of over a million people,” he explained.
Many of the people who have been moved to these townships were not farmers to begin with and find it difficult to adopt proper farming practices due to lack of training and guidance.
“They basically wanted to move them out of the good ground and move them to areas where they were ‘out of the way,'” he said.
The organization supports those struggling with unemployment in South Africa and helps those who want to get into farming to get back on their feet. South Africa’s unemployment rate hit 34.9% in November, according to Statistics South Africa.
Hodge’s role is to visit different areas and conduct a 200-word assessment, with the help of a translator, to determine what farmers are doing wrong in their practice so he can provide them with methods and solutions. simpler.
These solutions could be how to compost better or Hodge can give marketing advice so that farmers can sell their vegetables better, for example.
In addition, he also contributes to research projects conducted by the organization.
“Jake’s story shows how you can get into social justice work one step at a time and [eventually] to be able to speak from a place of experience when you start to really get into advocacy,” Gordon said.
Hodge also volunteers with Usiko Stellenbosch, an organization that specializes in transitioning 8th and 9th graders into high school and transitioning 11th and 12th graders out of high school, two key phases of a student’s development.
“A lot of high school kids live in poor areas where there’s gang violence, trafficking and prostitution,” Hodge said. “[We] keep them off the streets, help them figure out where they want their life to go, and help them get there.
It teaches students practical lessons in agriculture, such as how to grow food for themselves and others, and how they can do it sustainably through organic farming.
Hodge is a changemaker in these communities.
“St. Thomas really prepared me through the research opportunities [I did]. I’ve held a few plant research positions in St. Thomas and it’s been helpful to me, as I [can] answer a lot of questions because I have experience in planting,” he said.
He also said the school gave him role models who “ignited a passion” in him for volunteering.
“I would never have come here without the inspiration of other people,” he said.
Reasons to give back
Hodge’s mentality has always been that if he has extra time in the day, he doesn’t believe there’s a better use for it than volunteering.
There is an intrinsic sense of good in building community.
Jake Hodge ’21
He continued, “There is an intrinsic sense of good in building community. You are always rewarded in different ways, whether it’s the relationships you form or the people you help. There is always a way for it to come back to you.
For those who want to help these communities, Hodge said the most effective way may not be what people expect.
“You can’t just throw money at the problem because it has essentially created a charity government that creates dependent people. It’s like the old saying, “If you give a man fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
Hodge said that saying rings true in these South African townships.
“You really have to give them knowledge to be able to create their own wealth. The main problem is getting people from this stage of [handouts] to be able to create [their] own things with knowledge,” he said.
Educating these communities now will improve people’s quality of life not just in the short term, but for generations to come.