Dave Biviano acknowledged that until this past year, he had never heard of Malawi. What he now knows about this small country in southeast Africa is quite sobering:
* It is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, with an annual income of $176 per person.
* Of its 12 million residents, more than 1 million are living with AIDS, and many are affected by malaria as well.
* Its current famine is the worst in past 10 years, with no food in 70 percent to 80 percent of the country. There also is an inadequate water supply.
* Life expectancy has fallen from age 45 in 1990 to 37 today. More than half of Malawi’s population is under age 15, and one out of every three children under 15 is an orphan.
* Each year, the government has just $12 per person to spend on health care.
* The ratio of people to doctors is 117,000 to 1.
“These people really find themselves in an impossible situation,” Biviano said. “It just overwhelms a person in a country like ours, in terms of comprehending this.”
Through his research, Biviano was inspired to establish “Malawi Hope,” an initiative of St. Mary’s Southside Parish in Elmira. The project was launched at Masses the weekend of Feb. 18-19. Father Rick Farrell, pastor, introduced Malawi Hope while the St. Mary’s altar was draped with a flag of Malawi.
The basis for Malawi Hope is simple: Upon leaving church, worshipers are asked to drop their coins in containers located at a Malawi display to support relief and education efforts for that country.
“Instead of doing big fundraisers or asking people to make pledges or sponsor children, we would simply ask them to share the change in their pocket when they come to Sunday Mass,” said Biviano, who is also the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults coordinator.
Thus far Malawi Hope has been quite successful, raising more than $1,300 through its first month. Coins have occasionally been accompanied by bills of different denominations, and the parish also received a check for $100. Biviano said the parish gladly accepts tax-deductible donations, which may be mailed to St. Mary’s Church, 224 Franklin St., Elmira, NY 14904. Checks should be made out to “St. Mary’s Church — Malawi Hope.” Further information about the project may be found on the parish Web site (www.stmaryssouthside.org) or by calling St. Mary’s at 607/734-6254. .
However, Biviano stressed that the general aim of this project is to garner spare change, not big donations.
“The thing that people have commented on is while they don’t often have a lot of dollars to give, they’re glad to be a part of something they can really afford,” he said, adding that “the hope is that people wouldn’t see Malawi and the problem as a one-time, reach-a-goal project, but rather bring it into the parish and sustain it over an indefinite period of time.”
All monies are going toward continuation of a three-year Catholic Relief Services project that ended in 2004 and was so successful that it has been extended. It brings limited medical treatment into homes, as well as education — especially for youths — about HIV/AIDS in an effort to reduce transmission of the disease. St. Mary’s Parish has been partnered with the Diocese of Dedza, where trained CRS volunteers cover 90 villages.
Biviano said he first became aware of Malawi by attending a Catholic Charities presentation last summer dealing with the crisis in Africa. The Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee has made solidarity with Africa one of its educational priorities for 2006.
“People are overwhelmingly saying this is not only a worthwhile project, but as a parish it helps us develop beyond our own boundaries,” Biviano said.