EMPATHY fundraiser aims to feed 10,000 Malawians

Ethan Ravi, Assistant News Editor

While sitting in one of your classes this year, you might have seen an envelope going around, with students putting their spare change inside and then passing it on. But what is the story behind the envelope, and why is it so important? 

In 2015, Mark Vondracek, more commonly known as Doc. V, was selected as a top 50 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, an award given to exemplary teachers around the world. A year later, while attending a conference for the finalists in Dubai, Vondracek met Andrews Nichessie, a teacher in Malawi. Nichessie explained to Vondracek the difficulties of life in Malawi for students, especially with the famine that was then ongoing in the country. 

“That was right after Malawi had come through a famine. And so [Nichessie] was telling us about how kids were out of school for months at a time. They literally had to help their families try to find anything to eat. For those of use in the West, we don’t know what famine is. But after hearing his story, we had to come up with something, we had to help them somehow,” explained Vondracek.

That was the beginning of the still-standing partnership between Vondracek and Nichessie. Over the years, Vondracek has raised about $20,000 for Malawi and continues to raise more. One key to the success of Vondracek’s fundraising is that the U.S. dollar is a very strong currency compared to the Malawian kwacha.

“The dollar is worth a lot in that part of the world,” said Vondracek. “So even if we raise $1000 here, that’s almost like a small fortune for them.”

Once the money has been collected and transferred directly to an account in Malawi, the money is then given to schools to build farms on their campuses. The resulting harvest from the crops grown at the school is what is used to feed the students for the entire year, and students can also learn how to grow crops themselves.

“We’ve been feeding right around 1,500 kids per year for the entire school year with each harvest,” said Vondracek.

This model was devised by Nichessie, and has become so successful that he was recently recognized by the president of Malawi. His model is becoming increasingly popular across Malawi, and more schools are starting to install their own farms, which in turn helps more students. This year, a lot of the fundraising money Vondracek collects will go towards getting the new schools started on the farming program.

“With these new schools coming on board, we’re looking to hopefully feed 10,000+ kids for full school years, each and every year,” said Vondracek.

Vondracek uses multiple methods to raise money for the cause. Every year, he sends out emails to all the teachers asking if they could talk to their classes about potentially donating their small change. In addition, Vondracek asks his students to spread the word and try to raise money themselves.

“I ask my students if they can go into their classes and ask their teachers if they can do a quick pitch to try to collect donations,” explained Vondracek. “And the vast majority of the money that we’ve raised over the years has really just been spare change and bills collected from students.”

One example of a student who has contributed to the cause is Calvin Talmage. A junior at ETHS who is part of the Chem/Phys program, he has Vondracek for physics and heard about the issue in class.

“I thought it was just a really cool program,” said Talmage. “So I figured, hey, if I can just do a little bit by raising maybe $20 in each of my classes, I could raise over $100. Because of the exchange rate, that would be a small fortune.”

To raise money in his classes, Talmage followed a simple set of steps.

“I asked my teachers if I could give a one-minute speech at the start of class. Doc V would give us a piece of paper with bullet points of things to say to get people interested and grab their ear. I would then pass around an envelope, and if you had any change, I would put it in the envelope,” explained Talmage. “I would also leave the envelope for the teacher to pass around in their other classes.”

Even though there aren’t envelopes going around classes anymore, students are always encouraged to help out by giving small change anytime to Vondracek. Another way to help out is by donating to the GoFundMe site at this link.