Editor's note: This article is the second in a two-part series on a program called "Lending a Hand in the Warm Heart of Africa," in Malawi.
ADAMS — This past year, Hoosac Valley Regional High School student Allison Racela took matters into her own hands, by reaching out to friends, family members, neighbors and others who were interested to collect shoes and clothing for families in Malawi, Africa.
Together, for her first independent shipment, they sent over more than 43 pairs of sneakers, in addition to clothing and sandals. The shipping money came out of Racela's own pocket.
Asked why she would be willing to spend her own savings on people she's never met, she said, "I'm lucky. I have everything I need." She also said that giving shoes was not considered a handout, but a gesture towards helping young people and families have the opportunity to better themselves by getting an education.
In Malawi, there are a lot of people and a lot of need. According to the most recent CIA World Factbook data, Malawi has an estimated population of 17,964,697; nearly 47 percent of those people are youths, ages 14 and under. The median age of people is 16.
For years, Racela's grandfather and grandmother have financially supported shipping clothes and shoes donations, as well as house construction projects for a nonprofit called Lending a Hand in the Warm Heart of Africa, founded by Williamstown resident, Stephen Sneed.
Sneed, who has also served as a Williams College dean, has had a longtime relationship with Malawi, particularly the villages of Milonde and Mkweate. He served as a Fulbright Scholar for the 2003-2004 academic year, and taught the U.S. equivalent of high school students from August to December 2015, until an illness called him back to the Berkshires.
Whenever he visits, he brings shoes and clothing, and doesn't just hand things out. He lets the Milonde and Mkweate people talk with each other and select what they want for themselves and to take home to their family members. "You don't take away their sense of dignity," Sneed said.
Shipping shoes and clothes is a risk, but one he's admittedly willing to take. Because the country is so poor — 52 percent of people live below the national poverty line, compared with the roughly 15 percent of people living under the U.S. poverty line — and because public health is greatly devastated by the HIV and AIDS, packages may be intercepted on their way to the villages, the contents used or sold.
But for those in Milonde and Mkweate who receive the clothes and shoes are appreciative, and do use them as a pathway to education. In terms of the houses that have built, Sneed said the money donated to support them go to hiring local workers to supply the materials and build the homes.
Said Racela, "That's why my mom and I want to visit someday. To show people here that they are making a difference there."
To read the first part of this story, visit berkshireeagle.com/learning