Maria Goes To The North Pole To Educate Her Kids
Susan notes: this piece was originally posted in March 2011. It's now October 2011, and Maria is once again trying to raise money for "her kids," and The Dhaka Project - this time with a trek to Everest.
“The North Pole is out of my element, comfort zone and character, but there are people far worse off every day of their lives, compared to what I will go through for a few days.”
That remark sums up the can-do attitude of humanitarian Maria Conceicao, the founder of the Maria Christina Foundation, who is about to set off on her latest adventure.
Conceicao, from Portugal, will brave the freezing temperatures and the harsh weather conditions of the North Pole when she treks there next month.
Her aim is to raise Dhs1 million, which will pay for six years of education for six Bangladeshi children who have been rescued from slums and brought to Dubai.
“I have to pay for their education, so I went searching online to see what I could do to make big money and attract corporate sponsors,” says Maria.
“Garage sales and flea markets aren’t enough. Everyone is under the impression everything is paid for, but I still have to provide 50 per cent of their school fees and two tickets home for each of them every year.
“There were three things I found could make the money - Everest, the North or South Pole and a gala dinner. The North Pole needed the least training, so I signed up with Polar Explorer and began training in December.”
Conceicao is well known in Dubai for the work she is doing with children in Dhaka.
Last summer, she brought a group of youngsters to Dubai, where they now live and study. What she has done has changed their lives, but she remains modest in her endeavours. “I’ve known these kids for six years. I’m very attached to them, and they’re my kids,” she says. “Tell me how many mothers wouldn’t do the same for their kids.
“I want to provide them with the best education and the best life I can. How different am I from others who want to give their children the best they can?”
But trekking to the North Pole to ensure the children can stay in the UAE, and have the opportunities she has promised them is no small feat. Training includes pulling tyres six mornings a week along Jumeirah Beach Road with her trainer Ismael, and a five-day training camp in Minnesota in the US.
“I started trying to pull the tyres for 3.5km, but I only lasted 10 minutes and I managed less than a kilometre. Now I can keep going for four hours, stopping occasionally for a drink of water or an energy bar. I feel muscle pain, but it’s nothing compared to the pain my kids will feel if they have to go back,” she says.
In America, Conceicao trained in temperatures between minus 18 and 23C, pulled a sled, set up a tent and skied in similar conditions to those she will have to face in the North Pole. She also had to simulate the possibility of falling into frozen water and pulling herself out.
“There was a frozen lake in Minnesota, which I had to jump into. For a few minutes, I refused to do it, and then I felt ashamed for acting that way. For me, it was just a few seconds of pain, but for them to go back to the slums would be a lifetime,” she said. “I told myself to man up, and jumped in and had water up to my neck. I managed to get out and ran for the sauna.”
There are moments when she wants to complain, but tries to stay focused.
“When I feel sorry for myself, I think about the other miseries in the world, and I feel ashamed of complaining,” she says.
Not only is Conceicao pushing her limits to give all six children the life they deserve, she is now looking after two more children, bringing her brood to eight, yet she remains unfazed.
She says: “I’m just a regular girl-next-door. People don’t realise I’m just an ordinary girl trying to make a difference.”
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