Turning Enthusiasm into Action: How one child's determination has saved thousands of lives

May 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Global Health (May/June/July 2010) issue of Circuit Rider
UMNS photo by Mike Dubose

In 2006, Lynda Commale saw a PBS documentary about malaria's devastating effects in Africa and shared what she had learned with her family, including then five-year-old Katherine. Since then, Lynda and Katherine have raised over $140,000 and have motivated countless others to contribute as well. Their ability to inspire others to action is a model for Christian leaders everywhere. Circuit Rider asked Lynda Commale how they did it.

You said you were “really shaken” by what you learned about malaria. How did Katherine respond when you explained the crisis to her?

She asked a ton of questions. She wanted to know all about the mosquito that carried malaria. She wanted to know all about the special nets treated with special medicine that keeps the mosquitoes away. She truly was shocked when I told her that every thirty seconds a child dies from this disease. She counted to thirty on her fingers and said, “Mom, we need to send some nets right away!”

Katherine and I talked openly about how poor the families were in Africa. I explained to her that the families did not have enough money to buy a net because they needed to use their money for food. She wanted to send nets and she wanted everyone to get one soon. It did not make sense to her that they did not have them. She also asked me how much a net cost. I told her $10. She could not comprehend how so many people could still need nets since they only cost $10. In her head at that time, I think she said to herself, “No problem! $10 is not a lot of money—we can send tons of nets!”

What made you and her think bigger than just giving a onetime donation?

In all honesty, I never expected Katherine to respond this way. I was hoping that morning that my husband would be moved by my emotions from the news I had learned about malaria and its devastating effects on Africa's people. My hope was to send four nets, one for each member of our family, but I was not sure how to send one or which organization to go through.

After Katherine's response, I knew that she wanted to do something special. She originally wanted to have a lemonade stand, but I had to carefully explain to her that I did not think that would be a big hit. Then she came up with the idea of teaching our church about nets. So that is what we did.

Katherine and I met with Patty Wiehler, Director of Children's Ministry at Hopewell United Methodist Church in Downingtown, Penn. We made a PowerPoint presentation with all the facts and statistics about malaria and mosquito nets. Katherine picked out many of the pictures for the presentation as well. We launched and all of a sudden we had thousands of dollars. It was awesome. I vividly remember Katherine sitting on the floor in our church lobby counting out all the $10 bills and saying, “There's another net, there's another net, etc.”

At this stage, we connected with the United Nations Foundation, which at the time was just creating the Nothing But Nets campaign (NothingButNets.net). We were sending the money we raised to them—already $11,000 at that point—and they in turn asked Katherine and me if we would be interested in being spokespeople for the campaign. Katherine said, “Sure!” Little did we know the extraordinary journey that was ahead.

How did you start convincing others to help?

Basically, we taught others what I learned from the PBS program. Katherine once said, “Mommy, you learned about malaria and taught me! Now we can teach others about it together.” And that is just what we did.

We made presentations to schools and churches, explaining the problem of malaria. We share how we got involved in this campaign. We usually do a skit when kids are involved, portraying a family in Africa who needs a net. We have kids come up and pretend to be sleeping and the mosquito comes to visit. Then we do the skit again, but with a net covering the family. It is always a big hit. Katherine also uses a diorama that she made with her little brother Joseph.

How do people usually respond?

Most of the time, the response is an emotional one, as it was for me when I first learned about this disease. Once people learn that every thirty seconds a child dies from a disease that can be prevented and can be cured, they want to send a net.

Nothing But Nets was selected as a best-in-class tagline in the 2009 Getting Attention Nonprofit Tagline Awards for its tagline “Send a net. Save a life.” As the judges said, the tagline “connects the action with the outcome.” Have you found that the simplicity of giving ten dollars to save someone's life makes it easier for people to give?

Yes. $10 does not change the lives of the people around you and me, but in Africa, $10 truly can save your life. I witnessed it with my own eyes this past October in Uganda, where I participated in a net distribution. There, a mosquito net is like water, a basic necessity of life. You must have one!

A brilliant idea that Katherine came up with is the bed net gift certificate. She makes them and sells them throughout the holiday season. They are hand-decorated, one-of-a-kind gift certificates that you buy for $10 and a mosquito net is purchased in someone's honor. They make wonderful teacher, grandparent, parent, neighbor, etc. gifts. She sells over five hundred every season.

How do you keep your momentum and passion for the cause going now that you've been doing it for several years?

Want to empower your church to take bold steps to meet human needs, but don't know where to start?

The Commales' work with Nothing But Nets demonstrates three keys to sustained, effective action:

  • Make it real. Don't just tell people—show people what can be done. Katherine's skits and dioramas demonstrated the problem and how the donations would be used to save lives.

  • Make it simple. A clear, manageable request with a specific result ($10 = send a net = save a life) helps people feel they really can make a difference.

  • Make it last. Don't be afraid to set an audacious goal! Keep your eye on the finish line and ask God to give you the stamina to keep meeting needs in Jesus' name.

That is difficult. To be honest, I have been ready to throw in the towel a number of times. Katherine and I have been working really hard for over three years on this project. We have raised over $140,000 in nets and, thanks to the press, have been able to send tens of thousands more nets just by sharing our story.

It is often exhausting to carry this burden with me daily. It is tiring and frustrating to be working so hard without pay, when everyone around me is heading to Disney World for the second time this year. But—and this is a big “but"—every time I start to feel like I am unraveling and can't do this anymore, God puts something or someone in my path to help me find my way again. It is often extraordinary how deliberate God can be to reassure you that you are doing his will.

Katherine, as well, has amazed me over the past three years. I still can't believe that she still wants to be a part of this project. Don't get me wrong, she is your typical nine-year old. She has her moods and her moments, but she has never once said that she wants to quit. She often tells people that she is going to retire in 2015, because that is when malaria will be eliminated (according to the World Health Organization).

Katherine has always viewed malaria differently than I. For me it is emotional. As a mom, I want to protect those children. As a mom, I do not want to see parents suffering the loss of a child. I can't even begin to imagine what they feel. For Katherine, the families in Africa need the nets, so we need to send them. “We will stop when everyone who needs a net, has a net,” she says. For Katherine, it is plain and simple.

If someone just learned about another crisis that didn't have a great program like Nothing But Nets already in place, and wanted to start a big project to help, what advice would you give them for getting started?

First, research the problem. I researched after I saw the program on PBS and found the United Nations Foundation. Through that research, I found a contact person and was able to learn more about what was currently in place for malaria control.

Also, talk to your church leaders. They may know something more as well. Churches are such a fantastic stepping-stone when you want to get something started. Also, contact your local news. They can help you get your story out and potentially help it get bigger. LI

Lynda Commale and her daughter Katherine are members of Hopewell United Methodist Church in Downingtown, Penn. They have been honored at the White House, and have been featured on CNN and on the front page of The New York Times. Katherine was named United Methodist of the Year for 2008.

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