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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 20, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 12Oakland, CA

East Bay kids to help AIDS-ravaged Malawi

In San Ramon, Pleasanton and Moraga, vacation Bible school kids are working this summer on behalf of children halfway around the world, amassing funds to help orphans in the impoverished African country of Malawi.

Students at St. Joan of Arc, the Catholic Community of Pleasanton and St. Monica – along with their parents and teachers – will learn about Malawian children who work in the fields from an early age, about families destroyed by AIDS and also about the people who help them and give them hope. When they finish their weeklong course of study, they will contribute their funds to a Catholic Relief Services project for a hard-hit area south of Malawi’s capital city.

“Our hope is to let children know as Catholics that we’re called to reach out to those in need,” said Michael Gallagher, coordinator of vacation Bible school at the Catholic Community of Pleasanton. “I see this as a great opportunity for people to see that we can make an impact in a specific area.”

The area is the Diocese of Dedza, where 15 percent of adults are infected with HIV or AIDS and 8,000 children have lost both parents or their mothers to the disease. The funds will help orphans and infected persons in Dedza with school supplies, medical care, food, vocational training and other basic needs.

The project began with Theresa Tavares, a parishioner at St. Joan of Arc, and is now spreading outwards to include vacation Bible school kids and nearby parishes, educating local Catholics and enlisting them in the effort to help their brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.

The story of Malawi: A Campaign of Hope goes back to 2002, when Tavares, a citizen of the United Kingdom, was traveling in Asia and Europe and hearing everywhere she went of the famine that was ravaging Africa. Churches were taking up collections, she said, and telling of conditions in Africa, where people were eating grass and mice caught in fields.

But when she returned to the U.S., she heard nothing of this tragedy in the major media or in church, and she began talking to the St. Joan of Arc social concerns committee. The result was an appeal for funds, and parishioners responded from their hearts, giving $28,000 in one weekend to send to CRS.

The committee wanted to “make a real difference, not just respond to emergencies,” Tavares said, and she was assigned to search for a program to support. “I looked at 10 different projects,” she said, “every one worthy. I picked the one with the most need and the least amount of media exposure in this country. It ended up being Malawi.”

During a recent visit to the Bay Area, CRS representative for Malawi, Schuyler Thorup, said the country has “poor land, poor people, and cyclical drought every three or four years. You take that, you overlay HIV/AIDS, and you have the perfect conditions for human deprivation.”

Thorup, who has been with CRS for 15 years, said he discovered the impact of AIDS on rural Malawi when he visited a village in the south. Out of 200 households, he saw “dozens and dozens of children, five or six men, lots of older people, and very few women.” He turned to the parish priest and asked, “Where are the farmers?” and the priest told him, “These are the farmers.”

It was then that he realized most men and women of working age had died of AIDS, and children and grandparents were left to tend the fields. He noted that overall in Malawi, AIDS infects 15 percent of the population, and in some areas 65 percent of women who give birth are found to be positive for HIV/AIDS. Dedza is one of the worst hit regions.

CRS tackles the problems with programs for agricultural production, health and nutrition, justice and peace, civic education, and, when necessary, emergency response. The Dedza project supported by St. Joan of Arc and other parishes is part of the health program targeted at HIV/AIDS.

Tavares said she chose the project because CRS was helping orphans, not by creating orphanages but by supporting village families who adopt the children. “You won’t find street children in Malawi,” Thorup said. “They’re always going to be taken in by somebody.”

The goal is to keep the children well nourished and in school, and since girls are often kept at home to work, CRS makes a special effort to help female orphans. Local church leaders consult with village headmen to decide who are the most needy, but CRS has learned that it can create stigma when some children are singled out for special treatment.

To remedy this, CRS gives “educational block grants” to schools for desks, blackboards and other supplies and pays for repairs. In return school headmasters agree to let eligible children attend for free. “So the community looks at it as more positive,” Thorup said.

To add to Malawi’s misery, 50 percent of the country’s medical personnel and teachers have died of AIDS, and many of the best qualified have left the country, so, Thorup said, “those who remain are particularly challenged” in working with AIDS patients, especially in monitoring their use of retroviral drugs.

CRS responds to this by training village volunteers who visit each patient daily and see that they take the drugs. They distribute bandages, vitamins, antibiotics, painkillers and supplemental food, and they do this, Thorup said, on top of their own responsibilities, carrying water, working in the fields, cooking and caring for children.

“The thing that strikes me so much is their humanity,” he said. “They are very, very protective” of the patients, who are often abandoned by friends and family. CRS also works at preventing AIDS by educating the public through drama troupes, he said.

Thorup visited an AIDS widow who lost her house, her goats, her bicycle and all her valuables when her mother-in-law showed up to claim the property the day after her husband’s funeral, claiming her rights according to tradition. The widow returned with her children to her mother’s home and soon began to suffer the symptoms of AIDS herself.

She had grown so weak that she couldn’t rise from her mat when CRS began to provide supplemental food – maize meal, a corn-soy blend, pinto beans and vegetable oil. After 15 months on these rations she told Thorup she was amazed at the change. “Now I only sit on the mat when I want to sit on the mat. You have no idea the days you’ve added to my life.”

Thorup spoke about CRS programs for AIDS orphans and those suffering from the disease during an evening program at St. Joan of Arc recently. In the audience were young people, Tavares said, who insisted on coming to the event after they had heard about it at training for vacation Bible school aides.

Coordinators of the vacation Bible schools were also present and came
away eager to give their support. All three schools are using a packaged program with an African theme, “Serengeti Trek,” but substituting the Malawi campaign for the suggested service project.
St. Joan of Arc and Catholic Community of Pleasanton are hoping to collect up to $10,000 each this summer.

St. Monica Parish has set no specific goal but plans to have students contribute and also hold a weekend collection at Masses when the Bible school ends. Kids, about 100 in all, will be outside in their school T-shirts collecting funds, said Susan Gindy, St. Monica pastoral associate.

The Knights of Columbus at St. Joan of Arc plan a pancake breakfast fundraiser in September, and the social concerns committee at
Pleasanton has also agreed to contribute.

Tavares said St. Joan of Arc has agreed to donate $10,000 out of its special collections for service projects this year, and some $5,000 has already been sent to CRS. With the help of the Bible school, she hopes to reach a total of $20,000 for 2005. This amount would help 200 orphans with schooling, provide vocational training for an additional 500 orphans and serve 400 AIDS patients with basic drugs and supplies.

Kerry Fahey, in charge of the service project for St. Joan of Arc’s vacation Bible school, said parents have been told about the Malawi project in advance and asked to help their children earn money to contribute. The school serves about 125 children, supervised by their teachers and 62 middle school and teen helpers.

Gallagher at Catholic Community of Pleasanton said the school will display a map of Malawi and pictures of children and adults. “Each day they will learn something different about that part of the world and really make this true education and stewardship.” He said kids – about 360 enrollees and 110 aides - could aim at raising $35 each, which is the cost of one year of high school in Malawi.

Tavares said the ultimate goal of Malawi: A Campaign of Hope is to have “long term sustainable income for this project,” and that is best done by arranging for donors to sponsor children. She is now working with CRS to create this program with a web site for contributors.

(If you would like to make a donation or want more information about sponsoring orphans in Malawi, please contact Theresa Tavares at theresatavares@comcast.netor 925-551-8743. Or you can send a check to Catholic Relief Services, 209 West Fayette Street, Baltimore MD 21201, payable to Catholic Relief Services and annotated with the project reference number “Dedza, Malawi 2280.658.0006.”).

In Malawi, most men and women of working age have died of AIDS, and children and grandparents are left to eke out a living. This elderly woman is preparing food provided by Catholic Relief Service. DAVE SNYDER PHOTO/CRS

A Malawi villager drys her “fufa” (maize flour) in front of her home. In addition to pounding flour, rural women and girls typically spend two to three hours each day obtaining water from distant and often unsafe sources.


These children sit on the dirt floor of their classroom during a lesson. CRS provides educational grants to help such schools with blackboards, desks and general building improvements. DAVE SYNDER PHOTO/CRS


A home-based care volunteer (right) talks with a woman living with AIDS. The volunteers offer counseling, medicines and supplemental food. One out of every three children in Malawi under age 15 has been orphaned by AIDS. CRS PHOTO

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