By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
ENDWELL — When Sister Beatrice Chipeta saw so many orphaned children in her native Malawi living on the streets, stealing, starving and scavenging in garbage bins for food, she decided to do something about it.
Her journey has brought hope to thousands of children and has recently earned her a prestigious international humanitarian award. Her journey also brought her to Brother Peter Dano, a former parishioner of the Church of the Holy Family who is a Marianist missionary in Malawi.
Just days after Sister Beatrice received the Opus Prize in New York City, Brother Peter and Sister Beatrice shared their experiences with parishioners of Holy Family. The annual international prize is awarded to a humanitarian of any faith and is one of the world’s largest faith-based humanitarian awards for social innovation.
Sister Beatrice, a Sister of the Holy Rosary, wanted to help the children she saw suffering, but she knew that the best way to do this was to involve the people of their villages. So she walked to villages she could reach within a day, those within a 12.5-mile radius. She met with villagers and encouraged them to come up with some solutions to help the children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic that has ravaged the country.
She found that some had a bit of food, others had some extra time, and all wanted to help save the orphans in whatever way they could. Within a few years, under Sister Beatrice’s direction, the Lusobilo Orphan Care project has helped 9,500 orphans in the district of Karonga in northern Malawi.
Lusobilo, which means “hope” in the local language of Ngonde, is a community-based orphan care project. The name was suggested by one of the villagers Sister Beatrice has helped because her work has given hope to the children.
“They are happy, they are eating and they are loved. But they are still coming, the tiny ones,” Sister Beatrice said. “They come to us when they are just skinny babies. You can just see their bones. With the help that you are giving us we are able to reach them. But the way is not easy.”
While there are 70 children who stay in an orphanage at Lusobilo because they have no extended family to rely on, the program also offers community-based childcare centers, infant care, community feeding centers, village nutrition centers, a technical college and AIDS awareness programs.
Until recently, there were 66 villages involved in the project, but Sister Beatrice has decided to walk even a little farther and include eight more villages in the work.
“It’s hard to keep up with Sister Beatrice,” Brother Peter laughed. “I call her the Mother Teresa of Malawi.”
He said the main work of the projects is in the villages and helping the 240 orphan-headed households who rely on Lusobilo. “These are households that are run by something like a 15-year old boy or girl taking care of their younger brothers and sisters because both of their parents have passed away,” Brother Peter said.
Sister Beatrice said that once awareness of AIDS came to the country, many had already been infected. “The situation is not so good,” she said. “Most of the middle [aged] people have died. We just have very old people and young children who all need support.”
Ordinarily, she said, the strong family networks in the country would mean that the orphaned children of one couple would go to an aunt or uncle. But more people are dying of AIDS every day. “This sister dies, so they move to another sister, then this one dies and the children move again,” she said. This can mean that sometimes over a dozen children will come to rely on a single family member who was barely able to feed his immediate family.
Sister Beatrice also took the opportunity to thank Brother Peter’s family and the parishioners of Holy Family. “I wanted to stand before you and thank you for the support that I’m getting from Brother Peter,” she said. In particular, she said she was grateful for the vocational college he runs and for his ability to handle so much desperation with a cool head and a kind heart.
“Every morning at the office of Peter it is a crowd of people saying ‘I need’ and ‘I need’ and ‘My husband has died’ and ‘My uncle has died’ every day from morning to evening,” she said.
The Opus Prize brings with it a grant that will go a long way toward helping this need. Usually, the prize is for $1 million, but for the first time the award was split between Sister Beatrice’s work and the Working Boys’ Center in Quito, Ecuador run by Father John Halligan, SJ.
But there is always more to be done.
“Before we started this project many children were dying,” Sister Beatrice said. “Now they are rejoicing and happy and their faces are good, and this is our encouragement to do more.”
Brother Peter pointed out that Sister Beatrice herself was orphaned at 12, and her love of the nuns she saw at her Catholic school first inspired her to her vocation.
“I think of Sister Beatrice as a universal sister. She reaches out to all people,” he said. “An orphan is of no denomination; an orphan is a child of God.”