Dubai-based charity founder Maria Conceicao has broken six Guinness World Records, from trekking the North Pole to becoming the first Portuguese woman to summit Everest, but for all the tremendous accolades achieved she doesn’t do it for the personal glory.
Instead Conceicao’s ambition is to raise awareness and funds for her Maria Cristina Foundation in Bangladesh which supports nearly 200 children from the slums of Dhaka. A former Emirates Airlines flight attendant, Conceicao set up MCF in 2005 and divides her time between the UAE, Dhaka and around the world where she sustains the operation of the foundation.
It all started eleven years ago, where after seeing some of the world’s most famous cities, she landed in Dhaka on a short layover and witnessed the widespread poverty in Bangladesh’s capital. This brief visit would change her life forever.
“I’d never been in a third world country. I was only doing these amazing destinations and you didn’t see this type of the world. We completely lost the sense of reality,” Conceicao told Sport360. “I was working in business class, staying in the most amazing hotels around the world, sightseeing, and life felt like a holiday. It was a big slap in my face when I went to Bangladesh.”
Shortly after returning to Dubai, Conceicao sold all her belongings, cancelled a planned trip to New Zealand with friends and returned to Bangladesh where she would set up a school six months later.
With continuous hard work, the group now sends children to schools in Dhaka to provide them with the best opportunities to succeed in the future. But all this comes at a cost, and the extreme challenges Maria pursues raise money in order to keep the charity in operation.
The foundation needs $1 million over the next nine years to send children to school and cover tuition fees, uniform costs and meals. In the current financial climate, Conceicao has found it difficult to raise donations and the charity remains in urgent need of funds to help more children to continue their education.
“I’m going to keep doing this until I raise the money. My costs are becoming higher so life becomes more expensive so I need to raise more. My goal is to see the kids through great wealth in Bangladesh. In order to do that, I need to get sponsorship,” she said.
While many of us would wince at the idea of running a marathon, Conceicao has ran 48 so far. In 2015, she completed seven marathons in seven continents across 11 days, raising over Dhs275,000 for the charity. She could have achieved this in seven days but severe weather forced the plane to divert 20 minutes from landing in Antarctica.
“The children keep me going through the training and the races. It’s hard to understand. I think about my youngest kids and if I keep going that couple of miles, even though it’s really tough and I’m suffering, but for these children, it’s going to be a lifetime that they are living in poverty.
“It’s things like that when you think your suffering you should be slapped. I think I’m suffering, but I’m not, because these kids and their parents are suffering day by day and nobody knows about it,” she said.
“When I complete a race, it’s not 42km, it means food is going to be on the plate that day. That month they will have a roof over their head, and have safe transport to get home and education.”
The Portuguese native secured other significant records after summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010, running seven ultra marathons in seven days, and seven ultra marathons on seven continents in six weeks in 2014, all aimed at raising awareness and funds for MCF.
The kids returned to school last month in their new uniforms and shoes. Education teaches them discipline and has opened their mind to the various opportunities that the world presents. Away from the long hours in the classroom, they all have big dreams. Thanks to people like Maria, these dreams are closer than ever to reality.
Maria Conceicao has recently released an autobiography, which charts the story of the Maria Cristina Foundation. All proceeds from the book will go towards the children’s education in Dhaka.