After graduating from Gustavus in 1997 and spending three years working multiple jobs in the Twin Cities, Ellen Ruiters felt a calling to step out of her comfort zone, leave the safety of home and family, and travel the world. Her journey took her to Cape Town, South Africa, where she began an adventure that would change not only her life, but the lives of thousands of youth.
Upon arriving in South Africa, Ruiters planned to spend three months volunteering in the townships, engaging with some of the country’s poorest communities. What she experienced was a powerful sense of community and a desire for healing from people who had recently broken from the bonds of Apartheid. Impacted by the needs of the townships, the passion of the youth, and the strength of community, Ruiters decided to lengthen her stay in Cape Town and eventually founded a non-profit organization focused on youth development called Africa Jam.
Africa Jam works with some of the most economically disadvantaged communities in South Africa, engaging youth in faith enrichment, social upliftment, and arts and education programming.
“When I arrived in South Africa, a strong sense of community already existed, and I found a way to become a part of it. The youth in the townships had a passion and I was finding people to be in community with,” Ruiters said. “Building community was about showing up consistently, and listening – that’s how it all started. Africa Jam was a group of students that had a vision for their community.”
Crippled by segregation and the socio-economic effects of Apartheid, the people of the townships experience extreme unemployment and difficult living situations. Youth in the townships surrounding Cape Town regularly encounter violence, hunger, drug abuse, and the threat and impact of HIV/AIDS. In addition, the Apartheid Government, which came to end in 1994, forced racial segregation, creating a physical and perceived barrier between the differing races of South Africa.
Africa Jam, however, has been able to work across racial lines and promote unity. “It’s about finding what connects us. This is why faith plays a major role in the success of Africa Jam, it is a connector for so many of these kids,” Ruiters stated.
Africa Jam began as a bible study that incorporated dance and music as part of after school programming in Elsie’s River, a township of Cape Town. “It began with 50 kids, and grew and grew as we saw more kids finding a connection to each other, their faith, and the desire to make an impact in their community,” Ruiters said. By the end of the first year, 50 youth expanded into 800. And after 13 years, Africa Jam now directly and indirectly reaches more than 13,000 youth a year, in 22 schools and nine townships. It has more than 200 volunteers each year, and employs five year round staff and several part-time staff working in the schools.
This significant growth and impact is possible due to the focus on relationships. “It’s about seeing similarities, and not focusing on what separates us or our differences, but instead finding the places where our lives and passions intersect and celebrating our joint humanity,” Ruiters said. “We give each other hope for a better future.”
The focus on relationships has spread to her communities in Minnesota as well. Since returning to Minnesota, Ruiters has found ways to connect Minnesotans to the people of South Africa. She has accompanied several groups from Minnesota, including three Gustavus January Term study abroad courses, that have served with Africa Jam Camp.
“There are people [in Minnesota] that now have friends in South Africa and are committed to telling their stories, because we want people to believe in them as much as we do. We want people to become their cheerleaders,” Ruiters said.
In addition to bringing Minnesotans to South Africa, Ruiters brings youth who have grown up through Africa Jam to the United States to tell their stories, creating support for the organization. “Supporting Africa Jam is not about pity, its supported because you fiercely believe in the potential of these youth, and you genuinely care about each other,” Ruiters said.
Ruiters continues to champion the work of Africa Jam, but she is far from alone. The relationships she has formed and the connections she continues to encourage only build on the strong foundation Africa Jam has built. Through her leadership, this organization has been a catalyst for so many youth achieving their dreams, and through her commitment to engaging others, it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Ellen Ruiters ’97 lived in Cape Town for eight years, from 2000-2008 where she married her husband, Quinton. She now lives in Richfield, Minn., with her husband and daughters, Mayah, 8, and Matia 2 ½. In 2007, she received the Service Award from the Gustavus Adolphus College Association of Congregations. The award recognizes alumni and former students of Gustavus who have made distinctive commitments and contributions to the service of others.
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