Called to Serve

Rise Up Malawi founder and Castle Pines resident Megan Mathis talks about faith, family, and the importance of giving back

Megan Mathis is a busy woman. She’s a military wife, mother of two young children (with the third arriving in October), and devoted leader of Rise Up Malawi, a charitable foundation whose mission is to provide safe spaces and educational opportunities to the children who live in extreme poverty in the Mangochi District of rural Malawi, Africa.

I recently met up with Megan at The Exchange Coffee House to learn more about her family, her faith, and her foundation.

How did you originally land in Malawi and discover the need?

I was waiting on a visa after I finished my masters in the U.K. I wrote my master's thesis on the ways in which music can be used to harness political will, and I did a case study of Live Aid. I wanted to use my research for more than just my master's qualification. I found an organization that was running a music festival in Malawi. So I reached out to them and I said, “Hey, what you’re doing is really cool. I want to learn more. This is the research I just finished. Is there any way I can get involved or volunteer?”

And I’m guessing they said yes, please come.

They did. I actually went there to do an economic impact study for them. They had never really studied the economic impact of what they were doing. A lot of people thought it was just a music festival, but it was really having a substantial impact on the economy in Malawi. People from all over the world come to the festival and then continue traveling throughout the country for another couple of weeks. So yeah, it made a huge impact.

What happened next?

I interviewed a gentleman named Hudson. He had set up a refrigerator to sell cold Coca-Cola and Fanta at the festival gate. And he had this very intricate network of electrical cords. I mean, it must have been half a mile long. I don't know how the thing was actually running. He told me he was going to make a little over $300, which would sustain him and his family for the rest of the year. And he had a much deeper story than that. His wife had recently left him, which is very rare in Africa, with two young daughters to care for.

Sounds like you really connected with Hudson.

Yes. I returned to the U.S., and we ended up staying in touch for a number of years via email. At some point, he wrote to me and asked if there any way we could work together to start something to help the children in our community. He said, “I know you saw when you were here that their ability to stay in school and get an education has like hundreds of barriers for them. And they drop out.” And, of course, that creates generational cycles of poverty. I told him I wanted to help, but I don't even have any money myself. I don't know how to fundraise. I don't know anything about this. There's nothing I can do.

But my heart kept going back to this conversation. I thought, is there really nothing I can do? I do have access—I am living in America. I didn't realize with fundraising that you could just ask people for money. I thought you had to do something like an event.

So, you were trying to figure out how to send him money?

Yes. I lived in an apartment complex that had recycling bins, and a lot of people would throw parties and I'd see beer cans in the trash. And I thought, well, what if I recycled all this, got the money and sent it to Hudson. I put together a little blurb about Malawi and went around to all the apartment complexes asking people to save their cans for me to recycle. It was a very time-consuming work, but I raised a couple of hundred dollars. With that money, we bought two used computers and started an after-school program at Hudson’s house.

Was it his idea of a place to start the program at his house?

Yes, it was something he had been thinking about and I thought it was a great idea. He started spreading the word in the community that he was teaching computers to kids. I think we had five or 10 kids show up for these lessons initially, and they also were starting to learn English and life skills, as well as the computer. Everything started on his porch.

A few years went on, and I kept recycling bottles and sent him the money. In 2008, we'd raised enough to move the program to accommodate the growing number of students and have an indoor structure in which to teach during the rainy season. He had a small chicken coop in his backyard that we renovated, and that doubled our capacity.

So you ran everything from the U.S. and Hudson was sort of like your man on the ground?

Yeah, and I used that time to build trust with him. I asked for receipts and photos and videos and anything he could provide to show me these funds were being used in the way he said they were. He really proved himself over that time to be accountable and trustworthy. I saw pictures of the kids and everything was consistent and added up. And so as time went on, I felt more comfortable getting this money to him and that I could trust him to use it for the community. We weren't paying him. He was doing this on his own; all the funds were going into the program.

How did your work evolve into Rise Up Malawi?

In early 2018, I lost my mother. When she passed, I inherited some money and I just really felt called to use those funds to kind of offset my need to take a salary. I decided to put all the money into the organization, rebrand it as  Rise Up Malawi, and hire Hudson full-time. We applied for 501(c) 3 status and just kind of hit the ground running. And that's also when I realized there are a bazillion ways to fundraise and I started dedicating all my time to it.

How does your faith connect with all of this?

When I started this, I had a sense that God had given me this work, because of what I'd experienced with my mother. And I just really felt called to continue when she passed because she was a big supporter of this work. Like she would go and recycle bottles with me. And she had a charitable heart; she gave to a lot of organizations. And, so, part of me felt like I could honor her and her life through this work.

In the beginning, I was a little bit hesitant to say we were a faith-based organization, because we're not a ministry or any anything like that. But we do kind of operate from the standpoint of sharing the love of Jesus and his life with our kids. Kind of like, “We're just gonna love on you, because that's how Jesus loved on the world.”

There were a few people who suggested I may not want to “go there,” that I may not want to associate with any kind of faith because I could alienate donors, but I didn't feel that way. I wanted to give God the glory and all this, and really, I had to do what made sense for me. I felt like this had been handed to me. And there have been so many testimonies of things that have happened that just really are out of my control and blessings that have been poured over us. And I can't say that that's my doing, because it's just not.  It's too incredible to say that it's my doing. So, we're really just acknowledging that God loves this community and these people and wants to provide for them. And I think in that simple acknowledgment that we've received a lot of blessing and we've grown because of it. Obviously, you have to put in the work. Absolutely. But you also have to give credit where credit's really due.

How did you go from educating kids to teaching sustainable farming?

There are many organizations that provide emergency aid to Malawi, and that’s great. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. But it has become a lot of handouts that has created this culture of dependence. I mean, I understand why groups are driven to do that—because you just want people to eat.

Then about five years ago, I read a book called When Helping Hurts [by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert] and it changed my whole mindset. In 2019, we introduced our farming training program, because we realized, well, we're getting our kids into school, but a lot of them are going to school hungry. We've been giving their parents food, but it’s just a Band-Aid on the bigger problem—they've got to learn better farming practices.

So we introduced a farming training program called Farming Dad's Way that teaches basic techniques, like how to protect maize fields against flooding and dry spells. And we've seen a lot of success with it. We followed up with a second farming training workshop called Survival Gardening, which is basically how to create drip irrigation with buckets and hoses, to grow vegetables. We do equip them with the materials they need, but we make them demonstrate that they're committed to doing the work.

So you’re really teaching people how to help themselves.

Exactly. We want to give a sense of agency back to these people; to remind them that they do have talents and skills and that they can learn, and they can do things for themselves. We want them to understand they can provide for their families, and they're not going to need aid forever. You know, my goal is not to be around as an organization forever. I hope that at some point we fade out because these people are self-sustainable and self-reliant.

You’re originally from California. How did you come to live in Castle Pines?

My family—my husband and I, and our two children—moved to Castle Pines in 2020. Right in the middle of the pandemic. My husband is active-duty Air Force and received orders to work in Colorado Springs. So, I have a “traveling nonprofit” because it moves with us. It's nice in the sense that I get to share our story wherever we go, and now I get to share my story here.

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