Travelling from London to Nepal on the back of a truck in the early 1970s opened a new world for Mary Martin. She met many people and crossed many countries along the way. But she fell in love with Nepal and returned twice to the small south Asian nation to work among the poor.
Now, back in Grande Prairie, the 64-year-old physiotherapist at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital is hard at work trying to raise the profile of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP), and raising awareness of the needs of the developing world. She has been serving as CCODP coordinator for the Archdiocese of Grouard McLennan for almost two years.
One of Martin’s main goals is to create awareness about the developing world “because people have no idea what’s going on in developing countries,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I just think that we need more awareness of the impact of things like globalization both for developing and developed countries.”
Martin has also been trying to adjust to life in Canada after 10 years overseas.
“It’s very hard to adjust to Canadian culture after living in a developing country,” she says. “There is so much excess, there is so much consumption. It’s just a different worldview.
“I fit much better in Nepal than I do in Canada in terms of the values and the consumerism and those sorts of things, so I needed some time to adjust to being back in Canada.”
Half the 30 million people in Nepal live on less than a dollar a day. Malnutrition rates are high.
“People don’t have enough to eat and yet our problem is obesity,” Martin lamented. “We are eating too much. Where is the justice if the majority of the people are living in poverty while we are struggling with obesity?”
In June 2010, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, who visited Martin in Nepal in mid-2004, asked her to lead Development and Peace in Grouard-McLennan.
“The reason I like D&P is because they do good development. I think they do sustainable, wise, respectful development that is based on the needs of the local people,” Martin says.
“So many times development is based on the needs or the ideas of the donor and this is a huge error in my viewpoint.”
“I think Mary is a wonderful lady and very brave lady,” said Pettipas. “She approaches life with a sense of adventure and believes strongly in Jesus Christ and in the Church.”
The Grouard-McLennan archbishop said he appointed Martin to lead CCODP in the archdiocese “because she has a strong sense of what development is.”
Martin said she doesn’t regret having said yes to Pettipas’ request, “Although it’s been a huge amount of time because (CCODP) sort of died down a bit (over the years) and needs to be revived.”
Revived it she has. Since Martin took over, the CCODP group in Grouard-McLennan, has grown to be a very dynamic group.
In 2010, for instance, the group had almost 50 people at its Share Lent workshop — more than the Edmonton and Calgary dioceses combined, noted Alberta-Mackenzie CCODP animator Sara Michel, who led the meeting.
“Our diocese is huge but we phoned many people and many of them came,” Martin says. “I think that’s really helped to give us a solid base.”
So impressed was CCODP’s national council with the activity in Grouard-McLennan that it reinstated regional animator services to that region, which enabled Michel to again visit the diocese last year for the fall campaign. Previously, the region mostly received online services from the regional office.
As a further show of confidence, Martin’s group has been given the task of hosting CCODP’s regional assembly in April. Delegates from across Alberta will attend.
“Mary Martin has been inspiring to so many people,” said Michel. “She is such a strong leader. She constantly amazes me with her enthusiasm and her ability to get things done.”
Her enthusiasm doesn’t wane even in the face of breast cancer.
“In a way that gives me more time to work for Development and Peace.” The CCODP leader has been off work at the hospital since September when she started chemotherapy treatment.
Born in Montreal and raised in Edmonton, Martin is the holder of an honours math degree from McGill University and an education degree from the University of Alberta.
She taught high school at Grand Centre for three years before she returned to school and did four years of physiotherapy and occupational therapy at the University of British Columbia. She moved to Grande Prairie after graduation because she wanted to live in a small town with a large hospital such as the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital.
Martin ended up in Nepal in 1974 “because I wanted to travel to Nepal to walk to Everest base camp.”
“I found out at that time that the cheapest way to get to Nepal was by truck. So I went from London in the back of a truck and it took three months to get to Nepal and in those three months I went across many countries and I found that my favourite countries were Afghanistan and Nepal.
“So eventually I went back and I worked in Nepal because I knew that it was a country that I really enjoyed.”
Nepal is a land-locked country located in the Himalayas Mountain. It has dense forests, hills and valleys and is a good hiking location for tourists.
Most people in Nepal are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow enough crops to feed their families for six months. There are people who are extremely marginalized in Nepal such as those with leprosy, people with disabilities and people who have been exiled from their village for some reason.
Martin first worked in Nepal from 1993 to 1997. She was sent there by the Dooley Foundation, an American volunteer agency that promotes primary health in developing countries. It paid her a small stipend, just enough to live on.
In January 2000 Martin retuned to Nepal and stayed until late 2009. She worked in the capital city of Kathmandu for the United Mission to Nepal, a Christian development agency. Volunteers International Christian Service, better known as VICS, an organization run by the Spiritan Fathers, supported Martin’s 10-year stay in Nepal.
Many of her friends donated to VICS, enabling the organization to support her.
Initially Martin trained local NGOs and community groups on how to better help their people with disabilities.
Then she worked in a middle management position in charge of a team of 23 Nepalese and foreign volunteers addressing issues of HIV/AIDS, education, income-generation, advocacy, women and children issues, health and social and conflict transformation, disaster management and organizational development.
Most foreigner volunteers working along Martin were Protestant. “It’s illegal to proselytize in Nepal (a Hindu nation) and so we witnessed to our faith through our actions but there was no preaching or proselytizing.”
Martin lived in Kathmandu “but I travelled out of it quite a bit for work.”
She launched a physiotherapy school at Kathmandu University in 2002 with 15 students. It is the only school in the country that trains physiotherapists. She started the school with four foreign teachers and now it’s being run entirely by Nepalese physiotherapists as teachers.
“My passion for development is sustainability and capacity building and I think that (the physiotherapy school) is a good example of that.
“We started it with a lot of foreign help and we ended with them running it entirely by themselves.
“They are training Nepalese to be physiotherapists in Nepal. That’s sort of a good symbol of what I try to do in work ing overseas.”
Martin said she stayed in Nepal virtually without pay “because it’s a real privilege to work alongside people of another culture.”
“I learned a lot about different ways of living and I was able to contribute in a way that they are now carrying on with those improvements by themselves. That gives me tremendous joy.
“So it’s a real privilege; it’s not a sacrifice. I didn’t make any money but I didn’t want to make any money. Money is over-rated.”
One of Martin’s dreams would be to have youth from the Grouard McLennan Archdiocese go on a solidarity trip to countries where CCODP has partners, so they can understand good, sustainable development.
Canadians, according to Martin, need to learn how to help people in developing nations.
“People give blankets to orphanages. Well, that just creates dependency; it doesn’t really help,” she said. “We need to ask why there are orphanages. You need to look at the root causes of poverty.”
When Martin was working in Nepal “we were all very focused on the UN millennium development goals. People here have never heard of them,” lamented Martin.
“We used to rank every single piece of work we did as to which of the millennium development goals it was addressing. Was it addressing the universal right to elementary education? Was it addressing equality for women?
“People are just unaware but it’s not their fault,” continues Martin. “That’s why D&P’s role as an educator and an advocacy tool here in Canada is so important because people need to engage in those issues.
And they can’t engage if they don’t even know the issues.”