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Cancer couldn’t stop Janet Pofahl from traveling to India in late 1986. The former missionary was only a few weeks into recovery from an extensive surgery that removed cancer from her large intestine. Still, her doctor cleared her to board a plane and join her husband, Harry, and five other West Michigan couples who were already there.
Harry organized the tour of India and show their friends the work being done my U.S. missions in India, and to show them possibilities for more service to the Indian people.
The Pofahls knew India intimately after living there for more than six years. During their time there in the 1970s and early 1980s, Harry developed carpentry and electrician programs and ran a trade school for Reformed Church in America missions. Janet served the Bible Women Program, a faith-based program to teach women to work in healthcare and gardening assistance.
On the last morning of the 1986 trip, the group of travelers gathered to pray. The tour of India had left the group with a deep desire to serve the people of India. At the suggestion of Harry and Janet, they decided that they would raise funds to build a school. It was their shared conviction that access to basic faith-based education and trades could lift India’s most downtrodden from poverty.
That prayerful decision was the start of what is now Tent Schools International.
Once back in the states, Harry, Paul Land, and Bob Wieringa set to work. The three men are credited as the founding fathers of Worldwide Christian Schools, the predecessor to Tent Schools International. Harry provided the expertise in India, education, and mission development. Paul and Bob pulled together financial backing and board members who would be enthusiastic supporters of school projects around the world.
Like every good origin story, there is a parallel subplot, and that subplot has Janet Pofahl at the center.
Now 92, Janet became a powerhouse in raising funds for schools in India and 10 more nations. Her fund-raising played a part in funding at least 53 schools in less than 10 years. She was honored by then-Gov. John Engler with a distinguished service award in 1993.
Most remarkably, she did all of it with other people’s unwanted belongings.
“Harry wanted me to stay home after we returned from the mission field in India, but I had to do something. I had promised my Bible Women that I would help them after we were back in the U.S.”
To keep her promise, Janet organized garage sales by securing items to sell from her fellow parishioners at First Reformed Church in Grandville. The garage sales turned into multiple sales a year at upwards of three homes.
Seeing her success, Paul Land suggested she open a used-goods and Indian-imports store to raise funds for the women in India and Worldwide Christian Schools.
“It was great because I had the will and the willingness to do the work, and Paul (who was a local developer) had the money to buy the land and build me a store,” she said of their first location on Burlingame Avenue near 28th Street. “When he started it, I was just expecting a storefront and a little space. He built a huge store, and we collected so much stuff that we took over space he had planned for offices.”
Leading a fleet of volunteers, Janet and friends learned the second-hand retail business from scratch and put in many 12-plus hour days to get the store open.
“So much for not working outside the home,” Janet said, laughing.
At the time, her only competitors were Salvation Army and Goodwill, so the store took off quickly. For a time there were five West Michigan locations of Martha’s Gift and Thrift.
People who came to the store assumed Janet’s name was Martha and that the store was named for her. In reality, the chain was named for the New Testament Martha, the workhorse without whom Jesus and his disciples would have gone hungry when they gathered to learn at Jesus’ feet.
Janet gladly embraced the parallel between her life and the biblical Martha because she knew her work made a difference. Her drive to work hard for children on the other side of the world was nothing less than the love of God in action.
“We believed in the power of education to change lives,” she said.
Janet and Harry saw repeatedly during their years in India the way education lifted the discarded classes of India out of poverty. The investment in U.S. dollars was small, yet the impact stretched across entire families and generations.
At her home in Grandville, she pointed to a picture on her refrigerator to illustrate her point. The woman in the center of the picture studied at missionary-sponsored primary schools and then at the Christian Medical College to become a registered nurse. Her income from working several years in Oman, Jordan, was sent home to India to help her brothers get an education. She helped to lift her entire family out of poverty.
“And it all started because we believed in educating a girl from the slums,” Janet said.
The benefits made an impact back home, too, through positive changes in the store volunteers’ lives. Janet saw quickly that volunteer work cured the loneliness that many retirees felt. The stores became a place for them to find purpose and receive loving acknowledgment that their work mattered.
The Pofahl’s ties to India began when Harry was stationed in Calcutta during World World II.
“Harry always said he would take me to India. He loved the Indian people. He loved their kindness,” Janet said.
Harry made good on his promise in 1973 when he and Janet and their three children, then ages 7, 12, and 15, moved to India. Having spent his career as an electrician and tool-and-die draftsman, Harry accepted the opportunity through the Reformed Church in America to work at the denomination’s trade school in India and eventually start at electrician program and serve as principal.
Their work was incredibly fulfilling, yet it came at a steep price for their family. Six months into their service, their 15-year-old son, Jerry, was killed in a freak accident while aboard a train. To this day, Janet can only speculate how exactly he came to be thrown from the train and fall to his death in a deep gorge.
Janet and Harry seriously contemplated returning home with their two young girls after their tragic loss.
“We talked about going home but what would have done at home? Sit in our sorrow?” Janet said. “We stayed because we would have been lost and at loose ends back home. Harry would have needed to find a new job. By staying in India, we had work and it was important work.”
Jerry’s death left Harry with a grief that he carried to his dying day, and retelling the story still moves Janet to tears.
At Tent Schools we honor Janet and the group who started what would become Tent Schools International for their years of commitment to children’s education. We share their conviction that education is the solution to poverty, chaos, and hopelessness. We believe that creating hope for a brighter future is the love of Jesus in action. At TSI, we no longer build schools directly, but we continue the work by helping displaced children regain a chance to go to school and have a bright future. It is an honor to carry on their legacy.
Janet Pofahl, left, is the last survivor of the three couples who are considered the founding members of Worldwide Christian Schools, now Tent Schools International. Janet’s husband, Harry, passed away from cancer more than 20 years ago. The other founding couples, all deceased, are Paul and Judy Land and Bob and Joan Wieringa. At right, volunteers helped Janet run garage sales. The success of the garage sales prompted the start of the Martha’s Gift and Thrift, which were resale shops that sold used items and imported goods from India.