‘Little Miracles’ Exemplify Rademakers’ Malawi Connection

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Malawi Connection No. 1Serving people in need are a characteristic quality of Jim and Sandy Rademaker’s faith. Guess who's coming to stay with us for a while?

It's a question Jim Rademaker would explain to his wife of 51 years, Sandy, when he called their home 20 years ago to let her know a man from a southeast African country would end up on their doorsteps.

What neither of them knew then is the man from Malawi would eventually become the conduit for broadening God's love in some very tangible ways.

Starting in 1998, the Grand Rapids couple launched a nonprofit they initially dubbed the Malawi Project — later renamed in 2006 the Malawi Connection — that made is possible to build water wells, plant trees that's later made into charcoal, provided AIDS and agricultural ecosystems training, launched the beginning stages of solar power, built medical clinics, helped stem a food shortage, established micro loans for businesses and scholarships for girls' education.

To be sure, it's a long, ambitious list that collectively raised around $500,000 through the years.

Why it happened is because of Clement Chiwaya, who contracted polio at age two that left him paralyzed from the waist down, but kept firmly intact his can-do attitude to help and inspire people.

God is love

It also happened because of a faith that refuses to sit still.

"God is love and He gives us an opportunity to respond to His love and an opportunity to pass that love on to each person," said Jim. "We can respond or reject it and when we reject the poor and marginalized, we are truly rejecting God himself in that person.

"I as a Christian, I don't think I can call myself a Christian unless I imitate Christ who is God."

$500, plus a wing and a prayer

Malawi Connection No. 2Among Clement Chiwaya’s gifts is to inspire children with disabilities. It was in the late 1990s when Chiwaya happened upon an advertisement from Calvin College in his Malawian village of Mponda that said African students were welcomed to apply. The announcement added scholarships were available to them.

With around $500 in his pocket, the young Chiwaya hopped a plane destined for Grand Rapids.

And after arriving, was told by college officials he'd have to first return to Malawi and then enroll at Calvin the following year.

Chiwaya wouldn't accept that.

"He knew he'd have one chance and already played that card in getting here," said Jim.

Chiwaya sought the help of the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids who in turn was directed to Jim who at the time worked as director of the Secretariat for Social Justice for the Diocese.

Not their first rodeo

This is not the Rademakers' first rodeo in helping people in need, having previously served as foster parents and sheltering refugees.

Chiwaya was no exception either.

Chiwaya eventually graduated at Aquinas College in 2002 with a bachelor's degree with a double major in community leadership and political science. He then returned to his homeland to represent his district in the Malawi Parliament. He is just finishing his third, five year term where he serves as deputy speaker of the House.

"It was his intention to get an education because he wanted to return home to become an advocate for people with disabilities," said Jim.

Facing challenges, meeting needs

Malawi Connection No. 3Sandy Rademaker is greeted with a throng of Malawian students when she and her husband Jim visited the southeast African nation in 2011.There is ample opportunity to make a difference in Malawi. It is among the world's least-developed countries. Its economy is mainly agricultural, with a largely rural population.

The Malawian government faces challenges in expanding the economy, improving education, healthcare, environmental protection and becoming financially independent amid widespread overpopulation and unemployment.

Moreover, Malawi has a low life expectancy and high infant mortality. HIV and AIDS are prevalent, which drains the labor force and government expenditures.

Drought makes starvation a real threat in this nation of 18 million.

Funneling hope and money

No one needed to draw Jim and Sandy a picture to help the Malawians.

And Chiwaya's parliamentarian work has afforded him opportunities to inspire young people with disabilities and the Rademakers' Malawi Connection the capacity to funnel money and hope in much needed projects.

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Some of their philanthropic work is pioneering, such as providing scholarships for girls at a boarding school who otherwise may have ended up pregnant while in their early teens.

"At boarding school, they're safe and get an education," said Sandy. "We provided scholarships for 20 girls and saw them through graduation."

The Rademakers have stayed connected to Chiwaya well after he graduated from Aquinas and, as a result, witnessed the unexpected to unfold.

Chiwaya would tell Jim and Sandy about the need for a water well or a new school building without knowing how to fund it and, "a check would come in the mail," said Sandy.

"Or he had to buy some (college text) books and someone would send us a check," added Jim. "They're just ordinary people who hear his story and they'd say, 'That's something we can help a little bit on that.'"

Another time when Chiwaya was staying in Grand Rapids, it was obvious his wheelchair was in disrepair. Jim called Grand Rapids-based Alternatives in Motion for repairs and received a new manual wheelchair as well as an eclectic model worth $28,000.

'Here's the real story'

"It's the little miracles that happen," said Sandy, adding: "Here's the real story. It's not about us or about Clement. It's (about) how God works. If anyone told us we'd have Clement sleeping in one of our bedrooms and have raised half a million dollars, no way is that happening."

Recently the Malawi Connection joined forces with the Grand Rapids-based Warm Hearts Foundation since they share a similar-scope mission.

The Rademakers are quick to add their "plan" to make a difference in Malawi was not to over think a strategy.

"We showed up and we said 'yes' not knowing what we were doing but we had the faith," said Jim. "And Clement convinced people he was for real."

"You don't say, 'I'm going to do this stuff,'" added Sandy. "You're not in charge of it, you just wait until God puts something in front you and you say 'yes.' We've been foster parents, we've sheltered refugees. There was no question when he (Chiwaya) came to our place at night we weren't gong to help him. You don't know where it's going to take you but it's always taken us to wonderful, wonderful places."
Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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