May 8 is Mother’s Day and the Healthy Women Healthy Families program, a global poverty initiative of Presbyterian World Mission and Presbyterian Women, is working to honor mothers and children everywhere. The program provides free Mother’s Day or assorted blank notecards to Presbyterian Women’s groups and other mission-minded Presbyterians who distribute the cards in exchange for donations.

Healthy Women Healthy Families is making a difference in Malawi as seen in the story of Sylvia and Ken Gentili, members of Fircrest Presbyterian Church. On their first trip to Malawi in 2007, they learned about a 7-year-old girl in the community who had suffered severe burns while cooking over an open fire, a common cooking method. When this child’s clothing caught fire, she did the only thing she knew to do—she ran.

“No one had ever heard of stop, drop and roll,” Sylvia says. “So, sadly, this little girl did not recover from these severe burns.”

The following year, Sylvia, a retired community health nurse and early childhood educator in the Olympia Presbytery in Washington state, returned to Malawi with a curriculum to teach fire safety—particularly stop, drop and roll—to prevent other needless child deaths.

The same year, Jodi McGill, a PC(USA) mission co-worker, collaborated with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Synod of Livingstonia, to apply for start-up funding from the Healthy Women Healthy Families Program to create Child to Child Health Clubs. This funding made it possible for the synod’s Health Department to use the international Child to Child curriculum to train church women about important health issues. The women then taught the health-related lessons they had learned to the youth in their respective villages, empowering the youth to teach the lessons to others.

Children in Malawi use food cards to learn about healthy foods.

Children in Malawi use food cards to learn about healthy foods. —Sylvia Gentili

“I joined the Health Department’s first weeklong Child to Child curriculum training in Usisya, a remote village on Lake Malawi,” Sylvia says. “We taught stop, drop and roll, along with other health and safety lessons related to water sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, and prevention of malaria and dysentery.”

At the end of the week, the village pastor, who attended the training, not only thanked the group for the workshop, but also honored Sylvia by giving her a Malawian name of “Mama Usisya,” which means “of the people.” He commented that they had never had a white American spend a whole week in their village before.

Sylvia visited Malawi again after the youth in the Child to Child Health Clubs had been trained. “I had an opportunity to observe these young people creatively training others,” she says. “They used a lively song to teach hand washing; flash cards to share information on healthy foods; drama to teach Malaria prevention; and skits and practice to demonstrate stop, drop and roll. It was very rewarding to see the project come full circle.”

Over the past decade, both Sylvia and Ken have felt a call to return to Malawi—known as the “warm heart of Africa”—for numerous short-term mission trips.

“The people are friendly and willing to share what they have, though they have very little,” they say. 

Ken Gentili, a retired college science teacher, joined the efforts of Dr. Henry P. Kirk and Jenny Sheldon Kirk to grow the University of Livingstonia, in northern Malawi, from a small school with 35 students—all studying to be high school teachers—into an institution with more than 1,200 students on two campuses, Livingstonia and Ekwendeni. Students can now choose to major in education, theology, community health and development, computer engineering and environmental management. A third campus is planned.

Ken has also worked alongside PC(USA) mission co-worker Jim McGill and Rotary International as a new pipeline was built to provide clean water for 10 villages in the Livingstonia area.

You can make a donation to support Healthy Women Healthy Families at pcusa.org/donate/E052136   

Order Mother’s Day cards and assorted blank notecards by contacting Stephanie Caudill in Presbyterian World Mission, 800-728-7228 x5279 or stephanie.caudill@pcusa.org.

Programs of Healthy Women Healthy Families support primary and pre-primary education, prenatal and essential obstetric services, trauma healing and psychosocial support, early childhood health and nutrition programs, health and hygiene education, food security and fistula repair surgery. To learn more and see the cards, visit pcusa.org/hwhf.