Campbell River woman devotes her life to providing shelter for orphans
Arelene Lihala went to Africa five years ago knowing what she wanted. “I went there for about a month to volunteer,” Lihala said. “I really wanted to be hands-on with the children, myself.”
She was volunteering at an orphanage in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, run by a woman from Alberta. Lihala ended up getting what she wanted there and more.
Now it consumes her life. And she couldn’t be happier.
“My heart was leading me to step up and say ‘I want to,’” Lihala said. What Lihala’s heart has led her to is running an orphanage of her own in Milawi. She is the force behind Chikondi Orphanage.
After visiting Africa and working with orphans she could not walk away and return to her comfortable Canadian life. “When I was in Malawi I saw the need,” she said. “I’ve seen children die in my arms. It hits your heart and it really makes you look at what we have here in Canada. When you have that reality check, you really look at things a lot differently.”
Lihala certainly looks at things differently now. She is driven to do the best for the children under her care at Chikondi, even from thousands of miles away in her home in Campbell River. It stems from her belief that it only takes one person – one heart – to make a difference. Then you create a community of like-minded people and you can make a big difference.
There is a big job to do. Fourteen per cent of Malawi’s children are orphans according to Chikondi Orphanage’s website (www.chikondiorphanage.org). Approximately 1.2 million children have lost one or both of their parents leaving family members struggling to take care of the orphans. It’s difficult, nearly impossible, for them to provide the basic necessities of life.
Malnutrition, disease, poor health, child labour and exploitation lay in the future of these children because they’re caught in a cycle of poverty that will continue for generations without some intervention.
“At Chikondi, we provide food, shelter, medical care and education to some of Malawi’s orphans,” the website says.
“When you see the children and see the need and love that they just crave,” Lihala said, you can’t turn away. Lihala hasn’t and although it can take up to 18 hours a day of working for the benefit of the children, she couldn’t be happier. “It’s the best thing I ever did in my life and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
It was Lihala’s vision that got Chikondi up and going but the story really begins with two little girls, Fidess and Shakila. The Chikondi website tells the story:
“Both of their parents had died and the girls were severely malnourished and dressed in rags. Their grandmother was distraught; she was trying to take care of a large and very poor family and couldn’t afford to take care of the twins. Desperate for help, she called us.
“Max (Lihala), Chikondi’s founding father, and Edass, our head matron, travelled hundreds of kilometres by bus to rescue the girls. The trip back to Chikondi was difficult and the girls cried the whole way. Once arriving at Chikondi, the girls were fed, bathed and given new clothes. When shown this kindness they realized it was a safe, loving environment and within a few days, were happily and quickly settling into their new home.
“Soon the word spread that Chikondi was a safe haven for orphaned children. We get regular calls requesting help, and we take care of as many children as we can. It is difficult when the resources are low, food costs are up, rooms are full, and we have to say no.”
Lihala’s life is intertwined with Chikondi now. Her last trip there she was there for four months and that’s where she met and married her husband Max.
Now she dedicates her life to the orphanage. In the fall she has organized a fundraising ride from Campbell River to Victoria.
She comes by her desire to help the less fortunate honestly. Strong family values were instilled in Lihala at a young age. Born and raised in Alberta in a Christian family of Scottish and German heritage.
“I come from very good role models,” she said. “My mother was always kind hearted. My mother was my mentor.”
Her family now consists of the orphans and her husband Max who is an orphan himself. “He is an orphan so he understands,” Lihala said.
Family is important in Malawi as well. “The Malawian people are very warmhearted,” Lihala said. “They call their country the “warm heart of Africa.”
The Chikondi orphanage is operated out of a house where the children can receive good care in a clean and safe environment. “They are comfortable. They don’t have lots but they have a bed and they are thankful for that.”
Lihala hopes to create a legacy of caring and hope that continues well into the future. She is well on the way to getting what she wants.