Jon Biondo works and lives in New York City. That's half a world away from Malawi, the African country he decided to help a few months ago.
"One of my dear clients died last year and left money in a trust to benefit African women and children," he says. "So it was up to me to find the right charities to give her money to. I stumbled across a few organizations. But one in particular, when I gave them the money they said, 'You should really come and see what that amount of money will do in Malawi.'"
And he did. A short visit there, he says, was quite a learning experience.
"Malawi is a troubled nation," he says. "It's one of the least developed on earth, yet one of the most populated, very low life expectancy, about 43 years. (It's) landlocked. It has very few natural resources, but yet it has never had a war. It's a peaceful democracy. They call it the 'warm heart of Africa' because the people are so gentle and kind."
The trip also opened Jon Biondo's eyes to the daunting challenges facing this "warm heart of Africa." Each year, 85,000 people there die from HIV/AIDS infection, he says.
A generation of orphans
"HIV and AIDS have left the country with a generation of orphans who also face a tremendous number of other obstacles including malaria, tuberculosis, lack of clean water and sanitation, and tremendous violence against them, especially young girls," he says. "There is a tremendous level of disparity there."
When Biondo returned to New York, he decided to act. He co-founded Youth of Malawi, a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of Malawi's young people.
"Organizations tend to focus, as perhaps they should, on the specific problems that these kids face whether it is disease, lack of water, violence, malnutrition," he says. "We just felt that there is another need, which is love, and hope, and emotional support especially for a nation of orphans who lost their parents. We felt that was an equal problem."
In spring, 2010, Youth of Malawi will sponsor a trip for 300 orphans to the beach of Salima on the shores of Lake Malawi.
"Everything we're doing now is really in preparation for that project," he says. "As you can imagine, it's difficult logistically to plan a beach party from New York, but we're doing our best. We have an employee in Malawi who speaks the language [fyi: Chichewa, a Bantu language] who is able to help us logistically with some of the issues we're facing: hiring buses, finding the right place, getting the food."
Biondo says 15 American volunteers will travel with him. And Americans are providing support in other ways as well, helping raise awareness through Facebook and other social networking sites. "We've gotten plenty of donations of books clothing, backpacks, beach towels and bathing suits."
More than a charity
Biondo says he hopes Youth of Malawi will become more of a network than a charity.
Looking ahead to the spring beach party, he says, "We don't want to leave that trip until we make connections between those 300 orphans and 300 children here [in the United States]." Biondo is organizing a project with classrooms in the U.S. to write letters to the orphans in Malawi, which will be delivered by the volunteers in the spring. "They will get letters from someone cares about them 4,000 miles away, and they will be able to correspond."
That, he says, is just the first step.
"We think that by doing that," he says,"by 'Facebooking' about them, having all these American volunteers documenting their trip to Malawi next April and letting their circle of friends see what they've done, we can just slowly make a ripple effect and expand our sphere of influence so that more kids can be helped in the future."
Youth of Malawi is not Jon Biondo's first attempt to help others in need. Every year, inmid-July, he hosts the Fire Island Dance Festival, a two-day AIDS fundraiser in his backyard that's organized by Broadway Cares-Dancers. "They build an enormous stage in my backyard, and they have 13 to 15 modern-dance troupes come to perform. Whoopi Goldberg hosted it in the past. They raise about $300,000 to $400,000 in a span of two days for the people living with HIV and AIDS."
Jon Biondo says volunteering – whether giving back to a local community or reaching out to help people on a different continent – has always been a rewarding act of kindness. That's what he had learned as a child from adults around him. And that, he says, is what makes his life meaningful.