Jewelry with a cause

Published 9:00 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ruth De Haan displays some jewelery from Dignity Designs.  --Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune

Ruth De Haan displays some jewelery from Dignity Designs. –Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune

After 14 years of working as a missionary in several countries in Africa, a Hollandale woman is still trying to make a difference and help people both here and thousands of miles away.

Years ago, Ruth De Haan, decided she wanted to go to Africa and serve in any way she could. She worked in Nigeria and Gambia with education initiatives. The Chicago-area native would come back to the U.S. every two to three years to tour and speak to the churches that supported missions.

That’s how she ended up in Hollandale in 1993, picking up Greg De Haan at his parent’s farm house northwest of the small town. The two, along with another missionary, were on their way to speak to the Christian Reformed women’s church groups about the work they were doing in Africa.

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“I think we ate ham buns at every meal but one,” Ruth said with a laugh.

Here are some of the earrings from Dignity Designs.

Here are some of the earrings from Dignity Designs.

The two hit it off, but it was difficult to communicate once back in Africa. Ruth said letters from where she was in Nigeria to Greg in Kenya took about a month to arrive. Then at Christmas Greg traveled from Kenya to Nigeria to propose to Ruth.

They both wanted their master’s degrees, so they moved to Philadelphia where Greg received his MBA and Ruth studied at Westminster Seminary. After that, they moved to Michigan so Ruth could continue her studies. Nathaniel, now 15, was born a month after Ruth received a degree in educational ministries from Calvin Seminary. Sarah was born 16 months later. Then came the familiar feeling of wanting to help in Africa.

“We wanted to go back,” Ruth said.

Ruth.3So when Sarah was six months, the family of four moved to The Gambia and continued their missionary work with the Reformed Church of America. Greg was a farm adviser, and Ruth was the education officer for the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia. In 2003, they transferred from Gambia in western Africa to Kenya in eastern Africa. Their twins James and Jon, now 10, were born in Nairobi, which is the capital and largest city in Kenya. Greg was the project’s director with Across, a Christian non-governmental organization doing development and relief work in southern Sudan.

“We did HIV/AIDS training, church empowerment, micro financing, literacy and education work.” Ruth said.

Both Ruth and Greg enjoyed their work and thought Across was a good fit for their missionary work. But they said they would only spend 10 years in Africa, and after 11 decided it was time to make a home.

“We wanted our children not to feel like nomads their whole life,” Ruth said.

And they wanted their children to be able to spend time with family members here in the States. Greg’s parents were ready to leave their farm near Hollandale, so Greg and Ruth decided to take over and moved to the farm in June of 2010. That was the week there were multiple tornadoes throughout Freeborn County.

“We said we’ve got to go back to Africa where it’s safe,” Ruth joked.

Ruth said the children miss Africa sometimes, but mostly the family misses all the friends they made. In Nairobi, they lived on a compound where there were multiple families and plenty of other children for the De Haan kids to play with. Since being back, her children attend Hollandale Christian School until eighth grade and then head to Albert Lea High School.Ruth.4

“The kids have done really well,” Ruth said.

Now Greg and Ruth farm full time, and Ruth also substitute teaches with District 241. But Ruth hasn’t forgotten about the ways she helped and can still help people. While in Kenya, Ruth became friends with Tracey Hagman, a Minnesotan native. Tracey is from the Twin Cities where her son, Simon, was born prematurely. He spent a full year in the hospital. Later in Kenya, Simon was a classmate of Nathaniel’s. Tracey then started a school, Heshima, which means dignity in Kisawahili. The school helps Kenyan children living in poverty with special needs, because the public school system doesn’t have the resources to help special needs children, Ruth said.

Ruth said sometimes fathers of special needs children there either leave or can be abusive.

“The women have no ways to provide for themselves,” Ruth said.

That’s how the idea of Dignity Designs came about. Dignity Designs is a small jewelry company that employs the mothers of children at Heshima to make artisan jewelry with beads made of recycled glass, ostrich eggs, wood or bones found all over Africa.

“It helps those ladies a tremendous amount,” Ruth said. “It’s nice seeing their kids get help and knowing it is having a positive impact on their families.”

Ruth has hosted parties locally where people can buy the necklaces, bracelets and earrings. She also had a booth at Wind Down Wednesday this summer in Albert Lea.

The family misses their friends back in Kenya, but Ruth said it’s been good to be close to both her parents in Wheaton, Ill., and Greg’s parents in Hollandale and their extended families. And there’s always email to communicate with their friends back in Africa.

Find this feature and others in the latest issue of Albert Lea Magazine.

Find this feature and others in the latest issue of Albert Lea Magazine.

“It was quite different moving here from a city of three million to a village of 303,” Ruth said. “But it has been good and is really nice to be close to family.”

To find out more about Dignity Designs visit its website at