Release date
April 26, 2008
Kim Pozniak
Communications Officer
Baltimore, MD

Finding Purpose in Malawi

April 26, 2008, —

By Kim Pozniak

When Pia looked up from the colorful drawing in her lap, she paused and glanced around the room. She couldn't believe how many kids had shown up. There must have been at least a hundred of them roaming around the room, all eager for attention and direction.

Children at the Chinsapo Center

Children at the Chinsapo Orphan and Vulnerable Children Outreach Center preparing for the Varnis' farewell gathering. Photo by Pia Varni for CRS

It had only been a few weeks since she and her husband, Anselm Varni, a retired couple from the Los Angeles area, arrived in Malawi, Africa. Both volunteers for Catholic Relief Services, they were assigned to the Diocese of Lilongwe to start an outreach center for AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children in the community.

At their disposal: an empty building, located about half a mile off the main road in the suburb of Chinsapo, and an immense desire to help others in need.

With only a day's notice and the power of word of mouth, they were surprised at how many children were lined up at the door. "Each time we looked up there were more kids," Anselm recalls. "By early afternoon, we were all inside this small building with about a hundred kids."

With dozens of small faces looking up at them, Pia and Anselm quickly had to figure out a way to bring order to the chaos. "Pia had prepared activities for the different age groups, and we started handing out clean sheets of paper and pencils," Anselm remembers. "I had no idea what most [of them] said, but the special hand shakes and smiling faces spoke volumes. Somehow they all seemed to be happy to have this mass gathering of fellow orphans."

Starting from Scratch

The opening day of the outreach center proved to be a success, but there was much more ahead of the couple from Woodland Hills, California. Married for 40 years and with their own kids grown up, the Varnis seized the opportunity to move to Malawi after hearing about the CRS volunteer program from a friend. Pia, a community volunteer and Anselm, a retired design engineer, committed to 18 months of volunteer work with children left orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.

With little resources, they were able to recruit a number of local volunteers through the Lilongwe diocese's home-based care program for people living with HIV and AIDS. They also founded a committee consisting of a nearby elementary school principal, local chiefs and some volunteers, many of them HIV positive themselves, tasked with identifying the children's needs and funding opportunities.

With their help, Pia and Anselm slowly created a home away from home for hundreds of children from the community, becoming their mentors, teachers and advocates. They taught them reading, writing and math, offered extracurricular activities like soccer and netball, trained other volunteers to provide vocational instruction, and lobbied for those who couldn't afford school fees to have them waived.

But things weren't easy. Pia recalls the seemingly insurmountable lack of resources. "We needed books. We needed things. We had no supplies. One of our daughters in the [United States] sent us workbooks because there were none available in Malawi and the office had no funds to buy school supplies."

One day, Pia decided to approach the National Library of Malawi. "I called repeatedly. And I wrote letters." Looking back on some of the skills she had learned while being a community volunteer back in L.A., she realized she 'was used to trying to get resources.' "It was just a matter of learning how to do it and not being afraid to ask. And you're not doing it for yourself. You're doing it for the children."

Over the course of the next months, the National Library donated 1,500 books to the center, and Pia became a librarian overnight. "Once we had the books, I started a library and check-out system."

Fighting Stigma

In Malawi, located in southeast Africa and one of the poorest countries in the world, UNICEF reports that 14 percent of the adult population is living with HIV and AIDS and nearly 600,000 children were orphaned by the disease in 2005. Malnutrition affects more than 50 percent of children under five as a result of poverty, food insecurity and HIV and AIDS.

Displaying bricks made for a house-rebuilding project.

Godfrey Jimu (left) and his friends from the Chinsapo Orphan Outreach Center proudly display to Anselm (center) the bricks they made for a house-rebuilding project. Photo by Pia Varni for CRS

"There is a lot of stigma around HIV and AIDS and the topic was 'taboo' among the volunteers at the center. But after some time, it became more common to talk openly and the volunteers, living with HIV themselves, were educating the children and dispelling some misconceptions about the virus."

"There never seemed to be enough fliers to give out as teenagers and adults were taking whatever was available. Many children and volunteers came to the center even though they did not feel well, because they felt supported," Pia explains.

"We were all pleasantly surprised and encouraged by their openness. They told us that they have been able to talk to their friends about HIV and AIDS. They spoke of how beneficial it has been to talk with other orphans about the stigmatization they experience in the community," Anselm explains. "We were in awe at their insight and the encouragement to continue our work."

Giving Back to the Community

Over the next 18 months, Pia and Anselm thought up a number of different activities for the children at the center, including a soccer and netball team, a community garden, knitting, sewing, quilting and brick-laying. During one of their rounds of visiting families in the neighborhood, they met a 27-year-old widowed mother of five whose house had suffered major damage during the rainy season.

Back at the center, Anselm recruited some of the older kids to help rebuild the woman's house. The children learned how to make bricks and as a former engineer, he was able to teach them some basic construction skills.

"The teenage boys and girls, about 35 of them, found their way to the little house that we identified as needing major repairs. The brick-making took several days but by the end of the week, they had about 2000 bricks."

"One of the older boys was so inspired by the project that he announced he would build his own house. And he did. A nice house all on his own," Anselm remembers. "We could visibly watch the self esteem and confidence growing out of the mud."

A Lasting Impression

After a year and a half of hard work and an unwavering commitment, Pia and Anselm had registered 1,400 children at the center. At a farewell party, 600 children crammed into the small multi-purpose room, performing skits and dances, and seemingly blossoming in their newly-found togetherness. "It was really hard to leave because we didn't want the project to stop," says Pia. "We want to continue giving them encouragement, and I feel bad I'm not there. You just get really attached," Pia says.

Catholic Relief Services, already carrying out a number of HIV and AIDS programs in Malawi, has now partnered with the Diocese of Lilongwe, and will provide funds and training for the volunteers at the outreach center.

Back in Los Angeles, the Varnis are now completing the second, domestic part of their volunteer assignment. They are committed to telling groups and parishes about their experience and hope to raise awareness about the plight of the millions of AIDS orphans throughout Africa.

"It is in their determination, hard work and small-scale entrepreneurship that will make their dreams come true, dreams of finishing secondary school, getting a job, some means of providing for themselves and a future family," Anselm hopes.

Kim Pozniak works as a communications officer for CRS and is based in Baltimore, MD.