Making a Difference in Africa: Malawian Orphans Fund
By Mary Yeager Rathbun
Madison Community Foundation (MCF) helped FOCUS, a nongovernment organization that helps orphans in the southeast African nation of Malawi, take a giant step forward in 2010. When an anonymous donor offered FOCUS a $5,000 immediate gift and a $100,000 endowment fund through former Peace Corps volunteer and philanthropic Madisonian Tom Popp, several older children in the program were able to attend post-secondary schools for the first time.
Popp, a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi during the 1960’s, originated the FOCUS orphan care operation in 2005. He is also the donor advisor for the Malawi Orphan Fund at MCF.
In April 2010, Popp, delivered an alumni sermon at the Princeton University Chapel, telling the story of orphans in Karonga, Malawi. One of the people who came to hear him speak was so moved, they offered him a substantial gift on the spot.
“All through the ’90s, I watched with growing shock and sadness as the AIDS pandemic worked its inexorable was across sub-Saharan Africa,” Popp explained to his Princeton Chapel audience. “Children in Malawi, as in many countries, were being orphaned in huge numbers. I had to go and do what I was able for these kids. If I didn’t go, who would?”
“When I got the verbal pledge for the $100,000, I had to find the right place for it,” Popp said. “When I spoke to the Madison Community Foundation it was a perfect fit. There is another player in the operation. MCF must distribute funds to a charity, so the funds go to Malawi via another Madison nonprofit, the AIDS Network, and from it to FOCUS.”
Popp has known Malawi firsthand since 1964. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural Karonga district, an area cut by the Great Rift Valley that some believe may be the cradle of humankind. Today rural Karonga has a population of about 43,000.
The AIDS Network has been a partner in Popp’s project from the beginning.
Of the 14 million people who live in Malawi, about 11% live with HIV (UNAIDS 2010 Global Report). As a result, in 2009 more than half a million children in Malawi had been orphaned by AIDS.
“All through the ’90s, when I was still raising kids and working, I watched with growing shock and sadness as the AIDS pandemic worked its inexorable way across sub-Saharan Africa,” Popp said. “Children in Malawi, as in many countries, were being orphaned in huge numbers. I was aware of useful, caring, effective work being done for orphans everywhere, and I kept saying to myself, ‘I know Karonga, I know the people, the language, the culture. I have to go and do what I am able to do for these kids. I can do this. If I don’t go, who will?’”
In 2005, after he retired, Popp used a $5,000 grant from Rotary International, to take his daughter Emily, his Rotary exchange son DigoFerreira of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and himself to Karonga for 60 days. They came home with a design for a project to operate in partnership with FOCUS, which already existed as a local NGO in Karonga.
Popp’s knowledge of the local culture made him insist that the work had to be done by native Karongans. He found organizations eager to help with funding upon his return, including Madison’s Downtown Rotary Club, of which he is a past president.
By the time Popp and Digo went back to Karonga in 2007, orphan care committees had been established in the six villages where FOCUS was already doing other work, and clothing and the basics of life were being provided to orphans in these villages. It is traditional there for orphans not to be moved to orphanages but to go to another family in the village.
School is free in Malawi through the eighth grade. Secondary school costs between $50 and $250 a year, not including uniforms, or at least a shirt and a notebook, a pen and books. Some schools are far away, so transportation is necessary, and if a school is too far from the child’s village, lodging is needed. Each village’s orphan care committee helps decide who gets to go to secondary school. The project also has 15 bicycles which are used by students to commute.
The students were selected by village orphan care committees in each of the six villages that FOCUS works with, and then were interviewed by FOCUS’ two-person professional staff in Karonga before a final interview with Popp and his exchange student son, Digo.
Because of Tom Popp’s passion to make a difference, one young woman who wants to teach is now a student at the University of Livingstonia. Three young men went to a driving school to qualify as truckers. Another young woman is attending a two-year natural resource college. More young people will be added to the program as distributions allow, and the endowment will provide funds for generations forward. As a condition of their grants, students funded by FOCUS have agreed to work in Malawi for a minimum of five years after graduation.
To contribute to the Malawi Orphan Fund, visit the website here.
Or contact Paul Houseman, Donor Relations Manager, at (608) 232-1763.