As far as nicknames go, the “Warm Heart of Africa” is just about the best I’ve heard. Never have I experienced genuine, sincere, nonstop warmth like I have in Malawi.

From the moment of arrival in this beautiful, lush, country of 13 million, you can expect to be treated like family. Not that I’ve grown cynical and wary of excessive hospitality on my travels—okay maybe a bit cynical—but there is nothing disingenuous about Malawian warmth. Even the people who don’t want to sell you anything are warm.

Despite their country being broken in so many ways—rampant HIV/AIDS and the resultant orphan crisis, insecure food supplies, insufficient water and grinding poverty (rated 164 out of 177 on the 2007 Human Development Index), Malawians maintain a dignity, pride and joy that almost seems surreal. They’re battered, tattered but nowhere near shattered. What keeps them together you might ask? In a word…Christ. In two words, I would say Christ and hope.

The people of Malawi exude the love of Christ. They are peace-loving, kind and in many cases, heroic. When we met Mary at FOMCO, one of the places Hopegivers supports in Malawi, heroic was the word that kept coming to my mind.

With four children of her own and an unemployed husband, Mary might not seem the ideal candidate for full-time volunteer work. But that’s what she is and what she’s done five, sometimes six times a week since 2004.

Started in 2000 in response to the overwhelming number of orphaned and vulnerable children in their small village outside Mzuzu, FOMCO (Friends of Mchenguteuwa Care Organization) began as an emergency feeding and care center for the area’s neediest kids. It started small, with just a few women cooking whatever rice the community could donate. Over time, more children started showing up and the demand for food outgrew the actual supply. Unsure of what to do, the women of FOMCO prayed.

The answer to their prayers came in 2005 in the form of rice, courtesy of Hopegivers International, Citihope International and the Taiwanese government. “This food has helped the work grow by leaps and bounds here, now we’re able to serve 200 children five days a week,” said Mary, who often also comes in on Saturday’s to help plan the week’s events.

I was curious as to what motivated Mary, who was obviously poverty-stricken herself, to take on this sort of selfless, difficult and time-consuming commitment. Her answer was as beautiful as it was unsurprising for someone who’s committed their life to Christ and His teachings.

“For the sake of the children it’s worth it. These kids need someone to look up to and someone to take care of them. There are so many orphans here who just wander around with no care and nothing to do, nothing to eat all day. We’re working for our future generation, that’s why we do this.”

Mary is just one of the heroes I met in Malawi; while FOMCO is just one of the community-based, locally-driven initiatives we had the pleasure of visiting. We visited many people like Mary who choose to be in the trenches everyday—and who choose to put into action what they say they believe. Feeding the hungry, teaching the uneducated, changing diapers, protecting the vulnerable, binding wounds and sacrificing so much for someone other than yourself or your kin—what’s more Christ-like than that?

At FOMCO alone there are 35 regular volunteers, mostly women, who take it upon themselves to care for the orphans and vulnerable children of their community. Every day, they take care of kids like Loreena, an orphan currently staying with her feeble grandfather who’s unable to work or care for the girl. 200 kids just like Loreena—who otherwise would wake up every day wondering where their next meal’s going to come from—are going to eat today. They have a safe place to go. And thanks to ongoing help from mission organizations like Hopegivers and CitiHope, thousands more across Malawi will grow up to be heroes themselves some day. That’s something to be excited about.