Marty Arscott: Helping the people of Malawi through GAIA

by Linda Hubbard Gulker on November 22, 2010

Marty Arscott with Malawian children

While raising her four boys (born within five years, four months!), Marty Arscott, an Atherton resident since 1985, was active in school and community volunteering. But once they were grown and out of the house, she decided to take a hiatus from nonprofit work for a few years .

“I wanted to intentionally stay away from volunteering until I found something so compelling that I couldn’t turn it down,” she says. “And I knew it needed to be an area where I could make a real contribution to changing people’s lives.”

Three years ago, she found her new calling – the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) a now 10-year-old nonprofit organization that provides life-saving services in rural Malawian villages. In Malawi, located in sub-Saharan Africa, 80,000 people die each year and over 550,000 children have been orphaned, mostly as result of HIV/AIDS.

Marty Arscott with Malawian childShe jumped in feet first, initially getting involved in the development and finance committees before assuming the position of Chair of the U.S. Board of Trustees earlier this year. Last summer she traveled with other GAIA supporters and a group of UCSF nurses to visit Malawian villages and see the outcome of GAIA’s programs firsthand.

“Making the trip was an overwhelmingly humbling experience,” says Marty. “The emotional impact was huge, being surround by hundreds of  impoverished people – not only poor but many of whom were sick – who gathered in every village we visited to thank us for the work we were doing.

“What really drove the experience it into my heart was as we approached a village gathering, the people would be singing a song about GAIA, and it occurred to me to me that yes, GAIA’s work had become a fabric of their lives. The children there would remember the GAIA song the same way my children would remember a familiar tune.”

GAIA was founded in 2000 by William Rankin, PhD, who remains  President and CEO of the organization, and Dr. Charlie Wilson, who was chairman of Neurological Surgery at UCSF for 28 years. The organization’s program areas fall into three key categories – empowering communities through youth HIV prevention, orphan care/education and home-based care; raising the status of women through nursing scholarships and microfinance programs; and strengthening healthcare capacity through hospital-based services and mobile medical clinics.

visitor to Malawi surrounded by villagersMarty says GAIA’s work is currently focused on Malawi’s poorest district, Mulanje. “GAIA is known for going to remote villages where other NGOs [non-governmental organizations] won’t go. Another distinguishing feature is that we have all Malawians on staff in country and our focus is on educating the local people and giving them the resources to implement the programs. It’s the local staff that determines how to customize of programs to fit the needs of their villages.”

This isn’t her last trip to Malawi. She hopes to back in the next few years. “The people are astounded that Americans know about about them and care enough about them to travel so far,” she says. “They’re very humble and visiting reaffirms the work GAIA is doing.”

You can read more about Marty’s trip to Malawi on a blog she wrote during her journey. She first learned of GAIA at a gathering at a friend’s home. If you’re interested in hosting an event or attending one in the Bay Area, contact Nadia Winters at (415) 461-7196 or nadia[at]thegaia.org.

Photos courtesy of Marty Arscott.

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