Dr. Kendra ThomasDr. Kendra Thomas

Dr. Kendra Thomas of the Hope College psychology faculty has received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to take a deep look at hope as a virtue by studying how it manifests in a disadvantaged South African community whose residents are centrally involved in the effort to make things better.

She is conducting the research in partnership with the South African-based nonprofit iThemba Projects, which works with the people of Sweetwaters (Mpumuza) to enhance young children’s development and education by providing guidance and resources for their caregivers.  Running through December 2024, the two-year award from the John Templeton Foundation totals $210,902.70 (3.6 million South African rand) and is funding additional mentors through iThemba Projects along with Thomas’s study of the impact on participants’ outlook.

“This project will expand an early childhood intervention to study how hope develops and spreads as a virtue among caregivers in a context of hardship and community,” said Thomas, an associate professor of psychology who is a specialist in educational psychology.

“Hope is a concept well studied in the West as a cognitive motivational state and a precursor to positive outcomes,” she said. “However, historically and spiritually, hope is a virtue that emerges from grief and perseverance.”

Thomas explained that “ithemba” is in part the isiZulu word for “hope,” but that the concept also includes faith and love, embodying the concept of working with others for the common good in the face of adversity. “We don’t really have a different word in English for hope that is virtuous,” she said.  In contrast, she said, “the opposite of hope is despair, it’s cynicism, it’s giving up.”

Sweetwaters is a semi-rural community with approximately 50,000-60,000 residents.  According to Thomas, one out of every two children in the targeted community has HIV, and many children grow up with limited paternal influence.

Developed by and for South Africans, iThemba Projects has worked in Sweetwaters for about 20 years. Its trained staff members, who are from the community, visit homes weekly bringing supplies including books and toys, and meeting with the caregivers to provide support and encouragement.

The grant to Thomas is enabling iThemba Projects to expand its mentoring staff from two to nine, increasing its capacity by 600 families from 100.  It is also assisting in expanding the number of intergenerational support groups coordinated by iThemba Projects, and in creating a book-development project aimed at building a library of isiZulu children’s books on the concept of ithemba itself.

“The purpose of this grant is to support the mothers, aunts and grandmothers who have stepped up to raise children,” she said.  “Caregivers of young children should be a priority group for virtue development because of their position of influence as well as their vulnerability to loneliness and burnout.”

New to the Hope faculty last fall, Thomas has been a volunteer resource for iThemba Projects since 2016, contributing her training as a social scientist to help the program measure its impact.  The grant from the John Templeton Foundation has also enabled her to develop a survey specifically for the new research.  Consultants assisting her on the current project are Dr. Kevin Rand, associate professor of psychology at IU Indianapolis; and Dr. Kristin Valentino, professor of psychology and director of the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families at the University of Notre Dame.

This past April, Thomas was lead co-author on the article “Virtuous Hope: Moral Exemplars, Hope Theory, and the Centrality of Adversity and Support,” published in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology.  She is conducting her research collaboratively with Hope students, who also in April presented their work during both the Midwestern Psychological Association’s conference in Chicago and the college’s Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity.