Scaling Great Heights

04 Mar 2013

Ever felt so passionately about something you wanted to shout about it from the top of the world? We meet Maria Conceicao, the Dubai-based fundraiser setting off on a record setting mission to do just that...

Let’s face it, we’ve all had days when the alarm has sounded and it’s all we can do not to pull the duvet up and shut out the world. Days when simply heading into the office felt like too big an ask. But what if that alarm was at 3.30am, and rather than setting off to the office, you were embarking on four hours of stair climbing and tyre pulling in preparation for tackling the world’s deadliest mountain summit, before single handedly trying to rescue an entire slum population from a life of abject poverty?
It’s a situation all too familiar to 35-year-old Maria Conceicao, a former cabin crew worker turned charity boss, fundraiser and soon to be Everest climber, whose whole life changed seven years ago during a routine layover in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “At the time, I was living in this bubble, travelling all the time and staying in top hotels in some of the world’s most beautiful destinations, Paris, Milan, the Maldives. It was like I was always on holiday,” laughs Maria.
“So when I went to Bangladesh, to Dhaka, it was a huge shock to me. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that four hours from here, people were living like that. We all know poverty exists, but you see it in the newspaper and you can flick the page, or you see it on TV and you can change the channel. But when you’re actually there, it invades your senses. You can’t look away. The poverty is everywhere, you breathe it in and it’s a real slap in the face.”

Wake-up call
Swearing blind that she couldn’t return to her “extravagant” life, Maria set out to find a way to make a difference, starting with cancelling an upcoming holiday in New Zealand in favour of returning to Dhaka with a huge haul of towels, toiletries and clothing requested in lieu of birthday presents from family and friends. Her efforts were quickly noticed by her fellow airline staff and passengers, and she began to travel regularly with huge shipments of donated goods.
However, despite her momentous efforts, she was not happy with her progress. “I felt like Zorro,” she explains. “I’d turn up out the blue, drop a load of stuff off and leave. But I didn’t feel good about myself because I realised these people didn’t need donations, they needed opportunities – education, a chance to work. I had to do it right.”
Within three years, Maria’s vision had resulted in the creation of a school for the slum kids and an education facility for the local adults, who are taught the skills needed to access employment, in fields such as needlework, while their children are looked after in the on-site childcare facility. The community has access to healthcare and dentistry when needed, a library and an internet cafe offering computer training. Its elderly, assisted in escaping their roles as family burdens or mouths to feed, are employed to keep the streets clean, in turn helping to curb the spread of illness. And yet, as vast as it was, progress in Dhaka remained too slow for Maria. “We’d achieved a lot, but realistically, it was just a band aid. We were addressing the signs and symptoms of poverty, but I realised if something happened to me, it would all grind to a halt.”

A sustainable future
As a result of Maria’s worries, the centre’s staff was trained up and control of the Dhaka project was handed over to the locals in 2009. Job done? Of course not. “It was being managed locally, so it was working to a local way of thinking – the idea that if you trained a slum kid to be a cook and he could feed his family, you’d succeeded. It was enough. I wanted there to be more ambition.”
The result was the Maria Christina Foundation, the charity Maria has been dedicating her every waking moment to for four years now. It aims to help break the cycle of poverty by bringing children from the slum to Dubai, where they are placed with foster families and given access to an international standard of education. Right now, five children who began to learn the basics of language at Maria’s school in Bangladesh are in the city and by all standards, thriving. At the same time, those who were too old to be considered for the scholarship programme are not left behind. Dozens have been put through an intensive bootcamp programme, teaching them everything they need to know to function in a modern city workplace, from basic hygiene to kitchen skills, enabling them to seek employment here. As Maria says, it’s about gradually rewriting the future of the slum. “We have one guy, he’s 44, and we taught him to read and write. He got a job as a wheelchair assistant with Emirates Airline and earns Dhs2,300 a month plus tips. For him, that’s more than enough to support himself and his family in Bangladesh. So much so that he’s now set up his own education facility at home and is helping 28 other people get the same opportunities. So it just goes to show you that when you empower people, they’ll pay it forward. It just takes time.”

The cost of generosity
The catch? Not all good deeds come cheap. As such, Maria’s dedication to raising both awareness and funds has seen her embark on challenges many would immediately write off as insane. From trekking the North Pole to completing seven marathons in seven days across the seven emirates, Maria has secured full school scholarships for the children already here, university tuition for them in future and health and dentistry cover during their time in the city, while Etihad Airlines has pledged flights between Dhaka and Dubai for all the Foundation’s subjects.
Which brings us back to Maria’s upcoming challenge. Determined to secure more scholarships and a trust fund for the next generation of the slum school’s pupils, at the end of this month she will set off on a gruelling 50-day climb to the summit of Mount Everest which, if successful, will land her in the history books as the first Portuguese woman ever to conquer the world’s highest peak, raising US$1million in the process.
It’s a challenge the seemingly indefatigable fundraiser isn’t taking lightly, admitting that recent deaths on the mountain have put the challenge ahead into stark focus. “For years, my life has revolved around the foundation, running it, expanding it, being a mother to my kids when they’re in Dubai. It’s everything, but it can be very lonely. Now Everest is getting close, I’ve stepped back and just thought, if this turns out to be the last three months of my life, what do I want it to be about? I’ve realised I need to spend time with my family and friends, people I love.”
Not so much time however, that Maria is prepared to rest and recuperate after the climb. She’s already granted herself just three months recovery – half the amount recommended medically – before training begins for her next top secret challenge. Shouldn’t she slow down? It’s a subject her friends admit they’ve almost given up on. “Our motto is clear. If not we, then who? And if not now, then when?  We have to keep up momentum,” Maria summarises defiantly. “There are people’s lives that depend on me.”

INFO: To find out more about the Maria Christina Foundation or to contribute to Maria’s US$1million fundraising target, visit