Compass Spotlight: Karen Suffecool and the Passion Center for Children

March 16, 2015

A young Malawian girl fetches water from
the local stream.

Can you imagine a life where you have to walk miles just to get the necessary water to drink, cook, clean and bathe? What if you lived in a house made of mud bricks that may collapse every time it rained? How about if electricity was a precious luxury, available only to a lucky few and unreliable even for those who did have it?

In Malawi, many people live in exactly those conditions. In this African country of just over 16 million, up to 10% of the adult population is infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS estimates, and nearly 800,000 children have been orphaned due to AIDS. More than 60% of people live on less than $1.25 per day. Recent floods have displaced roughly 230,000 people. It's a country with an incredible and pressing need. That's where the Passion Center for Children comes in.

"The Passion Center wants to rescue, redeem and restore," explains Karen Suffecool, who has volunteered with the organization for the past three years. (Karen is also a Compass Financial Group client.) For the past 10 years, the nonprofit has provided support, including housing, food, education and health care interventions, to children and adults in Malawi's Zomba region.

Karen, a professional photographer, has already made two trips to Malawi to document life in Zomba and to showcase the Passion Center's efforts. "Telling a cohesive story isn't an easy thing," she says of her work. "We're trying to reach out and get the information out there."

There's plenty of information to share. The seeds of the Passion Center's programs were planted by a schoolteacher in Zomba who realized some of her students were showing up to class so hungry they couldn't concentrate on their studies. She decided to do something about it, taking the time to make and serve lunch to her needy students. Pastor Pilira Chibwana took note of her efforts and reached out to Eric Sythoff, his former teacher at a Malawian Bible college, for help. Eric, who led a congregation in California, also saw the need in Malawi and rallied his church to help feed even more hungry children. Eventually, through an old friend of Eric's, the effort spread to the Northwest Bible Church in Hilliard, Ohio, where Karen worships.

"From 10 kids under a tree, the Passion Center has grown to an operation that houses 40 residents," says Karen. Children in the residential program range in age from 8 to 18 and receive three meals a day, along with shelter, clothing, and school fees and supplies. In addition, the Passion Center serves two meals a day to 275 other children. Those infected with HIV also receive medications with their meals.

James' house, which collapsed due to mud
construction and heavy rains.

Because the country has few doctors and limited access to health care, the Passion Center has also created community health initiatives, in which Malawians are trained to provide essential health interventions (such as education about oral hygiene) to other Malawians. That program began with one team serving 17 villages. Now there are 17 teams serving 135 villages. "They see the great need," says Karen of the Malawians who volunteer with the community health initiatives. "They're willing to go and spend their time with people who are in pain and in need."

Another signature Passion Center program helps support child head-of-households—orphaned children who are caring for surviving family members without adult support. The Passion Center takes a unique approach to helping these children. Child head-of-households receive the tools and resources they need to be independent, like help repairing damaged or subpar housing structures. "The goal isn't to remove the children from their homes," Karen explains. "It's to keep them in the village environment." That approach ultimately puts the children on the path to self-sufficiency while strengthening village support networks.

James, who heads his household of three
brothers and a sister, stands in front of his
new house, built after the old one
collapsed during the rainy season.

Proof of the success of the Passion Center's programs can be seen on the ground in Malawi. Karen recounts the story of Orison, a young man who got involved with the Passion Center as a child. With support from the Passion Center, Orison excelled in school and eventually earned admission to one of the country's premier secondary schools. Ultimately, Orison went on to university, where he studied accounting. After graduating, Orison could have moved to a larger city to pursue a career but instead decided to return to Zomba and work with the Passion Center. He wanted to show others what they could achieve in their lives. "I am the fruit of the Passion Center. The villagers need to see the fruits so they know it's possible," Karen recalls him saying.

For her part, Karen is deeply committed to the Passion Center's mission and counts her ongoing volunteer work as one of the most powerful experiences she's ever had. "You get to a point where you're involved in people's lives," she says. "That's probably the most powerful thing I've ever experienced. It's amazing."

Interested in learning more about the Passion Center for Children? Visit the organization's website to find out how to participate in a mission trip or volunteer locally.

Images by Karen Suffecool. All image copyrights are reserved by the photographer.