Open Arms Malawi is no ordinary charity and its been led for the last 17 years by no ordinary man.
Neville Bevis was a teacher at Ashville College in Harrogate when he took up the call to move to Malawi nearly 20 years ago.
Thanks to his incredible dedication and vision, it has given help and hope to hundreds of orphans in one of the world’s poorest countries.
But now Neville is stepping down from his role as director of Open Arms Malawi charity.
So what have been his biggest achievements and how did he do it?
How Neville grew Harrogate’s Links to a charity in Africa
Having already lived and worked in Malawi with his late wife Rosemary, Harrogate’s links began before Neville Bevis was Open Arms’s director at a time when he was a Senior Housemaster at Ashville College in Harrogate.
A born adventurer , this big-hearted man loved visiting Malawi through the school trips to Open Arms.
On one of these that he was given the opportunity to move from leafy Harrogate to Malawi to run the fledgling Open Arms Infant Home.
Both the school and parents of Ashville College actively supported this move and they still do.
They held fundraising events for the charity, went on to set up the first board of Trustees and registered as a charity in the UK.
In 2004, following an appeal by the Harrogate Advertiser, Neville was able to open Harrogate House.
It still stands strong in Malawi today with many orphaned children depending on it for their upbringing, food and education.
The awful problems Facing Malawi
Malawi is a small, land-locked country to the north of Zimbabwe in east Africa.
Home to c.18 million people, it’s the third poorest country in the world.
A total of 62 per cent of the population live on less than £1 a day (World Food Programme, 2015).
Today, 1,890 babies will be born in Malawi. Put of these, 320 will become orphans, half because of HIV/AIDS and 87 will die before their first birthday from malnutrition or illness.
Staying with the wider family is the best solution.
But as formula milk costs £20 a month, and most Malawian families survive on less than £1 a day, for many, keeping an orphaned baby alive is simply unaffordable.
Open Arms and Ashville College
Neville Bevis was still a teacher at Ashville College in 1997 when staff and pupils visited William Murray School in Nkhoma and worked at Queen Elisabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre.
Jenny Perrins, a pupil on that trip wrote later in the school magazine: “it was not a holiday or a sightseeing expedition, we were learning about life, more importantly how other people in the world live.”
The three-week trip to Open Arms Malawi is still one of the most prestige ones that the school runs.
Over the years the school’s biennial sponsored walk has raised more than £100,000 for vital supplies that helps Open Arms to operate.
Fundraising by pupils going on the biennial trip has raised about another £50,000 to fund projects that students work on while in Malawi.
How Neville built Open Arms’ success
In 2002 Neville Bevis appointed Rose Phiri, who became the first qualified nurse to take the position of Matron.
Rose help him develop the Outreach programme and follow-up care for the children that have returned home.
Under Neville’s watch, Mrs Phiri has significantly improved infant mortality at the Infant Homes, too, by sharing her medical knowledge and training staff.
Back in the UK, Neville has been instrumental in gaining support for the charity.
Under Neville’s stewardship, Open Arms has acted as a transition centre that feeds and cares for orphans until they are ready to return to their families, healthy, loved and immunised.
In the past 21 years Open Arms has returned over 700 healthy two-year-olds to their families and supported many more through its wider support.
Transforming and saving lives in Malawi
Neville Bevis said “We believe that every child has the right to equality in education and effective health care at village and district level.”
He recalls vividly how he went about fetching Aubrey Jackson from Matope in Ndirande, one of the first batches of children to the orphanage under his management.
At just three-weeks-old Aubrey was close to death and weighing 3 pounds when he arrived at Open Arms.
He had been born prematurely and later got diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.
He was living in a squalid hovel, his mother had just died, and his father was keeping him alive with Freezits (sugar ice-lollies).
Now, at 16-years-old, he is a cheerful and confident young man and working as an apprentice to the Open Arms foreman.
Aubrey is one of the almost 1,000 children that have passed through the Infant Homes and been given a second chance at life.
Volunteers’ crucial work at Open Arms
Individual volunteers that have made the journey have all played a special part in the lives of the children that come to Open Arms.
Companies like Johnson and Johnson and SMBC Aviation Capital have developed close ties to Open Arms, they have visited and raised much needed funds year after year.
More recently, they have supported the building and maintenance of schools and feeding stations to help Open Arms support even more vulnerable children.
Volunteer Andrea Ainley said: “I met Neville and Rosemary Bevis many years ago. I was fascinated by theim work in Malawi and followed it closely through the Harrogate Advertiser. I promised myself I would go out to Open Arms when I retired.
“In 2007 I made my first trip with my daughter who had just finished university and last November I returned from my fourth visit.
“Each time it is like going home. I am always amazed at the country which has so much poverty but is so rich in its warmth and generosity.”
Andrea now serves on the UK board of Trustees in Harrogate.
A new crisis in Malawi
Neville has worked tirelessly to develop an Outreach programme in Malawi so that children continue to be supported by Open Arms, receiving help with food, care and medical support as long as they need it.
But Malawi is now in the worst food crisis it has seen for over a decade because droughts have destroyed harvests.
Babies and children who come from larger families are the most vulnerable.
Open Arms is currently working hard to raise funds to provide their families an extra bag of maize to help them get through this desperate time.
End of an era - farewell to Neville
Ex-Harrogate teacher Neville Bevis has retired from Open Arms after 17 years of leading the charity at its base in Malawi.
When asked what’s next, Neville said “top of the list is to see more of my daughters’, one in Harrogate and one in Amsterdam, and my three grandchildren.
“I intend to remain in Malawi, getting away more often in my beloved Land Rovers and sailing the Rosie Ellen on Lake Malawi .”
When a child leaves the Infant Homes we sing ‘goodbye but not forever’ and in typical African style this was chanted again when Neville waved goodbye to Malawi recently.
Neville Bevis’s proudest moments
Looking back on his 17 years in Africa, Neville said: “There are many moments that I will treasure and many stories that will stay with me forever.
“But watching Aubrey grow from such a tiny baby boy, who could comfortably fit on a piece of A4 paper, to a young man who regularly and confidently gives speeches of thanks to visitors to Open Arms, is one of the stories that I think is my proudest.
“I am proud of everyone at Open Arms, without the Open Arms family, the care givers, the grounds men, the volunteers and of course our supporters across the globe, Aubrey’s story, and others like it, would simply not have happened.”
Open Arms’ new director
Charlie McCaulder is now picking up the reins as director in Malawi and has been working closely with Neville for the last few months.
It’s a huge job to hand over such a significant operation but Open Arms is a strong, established part of the local communities in Malawi and the support that it provides will continue to grow.
Neville’s hard work and dedication has played out an incredible story so far for the charity, from the small home it once was to the two bustling and busy Infant Homes, seven Nursery Schools, five Foster Homes and ongoing Outreach programme that it provides today.
Charlie aims to build on the foundations that Open Arms has, to take it forward and help more children in Malawi have the start in life they deserve.