Maria Conceicao is a woman like no other. She has 172 children and none of them are related to her. In fact, they all live thousands of miles from her and don’t share the same mother tongue with her. Yet she calls them her children and the children call her mother. Why?

Maria, a former Emirates Airlines flight attendant, was so moved when she visited Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2005, that she felt an immediate urge to make a change for the children she saw begging on the streets, wearing nothing but rags. She asked her driver to make a detour and take her to see where these children live.

She started out by collecting donations from her friends and taking them to the kids whenever she was scheduled to fly to Dhaka, but soon realised that this is not helping to solve the problem. She realised that children need education – skills and confidence to break the chains of poverty. Maria opened a school with the help of generous sponsors from the world over. She hired the best teachers she could find, a nutritionist came to give these malnourished children a meal plan. For the first time in their lives, these children did not have to go to beg, to work in garment factories or get married at the age of 12. They had hope.

2008 arrived and so did the recession. Businesses went bankrupt, people lost their jobs and charities suddenly found themselves at the bottom of the priority list. The school shut down due to lack of funding. People from the community Maria had employed at the school lost their jobs and had to go back to pulling rickshaw, making hundreds of garments a day and being day labourers. The dream of educating the children seemed to have died a sudden death.

Maria, not one to give up easily, decided that she will not give up on what she has started. She convinced a local private school to admit the children and agreed to pay their school fees. The only missing ingredient – funds.

In order to raise awareness about what she was trying to do she naturally went to the North Pole. This raised some funds, but not enough. So, Maria trained some more and became the first Portuguese woman to summit Mt Everest. Sadly, summiting the highest peak in the world seems to have become too ‘normal’ so it did not raise the awareness needed. Maria reinvented herself as a runner and ran till she got 6 Guinness World Records.

After 2 years of running, the media got tired of her running and asked her to reinvent herself again. Determined to keep the children at school, Maria learned to swim last year and is now attempting the hardest challenge yet – swimming the English Channel.

The 34km swim in 14-16 C water means fighting with hypothermia, dealing with jellyfish stings and staying out of the way of ships while continuously swimming for 18-20 hours. What mother wouldn’t swim for their kids? If you have 172, the distance may have to be slightly longer.

So, on the 27th of August, Maria will attempt something that is impossible for most people and she will do it all for children, who 11 years ago were complete strangers to her.

Anyone wishing to support her can do so in the links below.

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One of the familes supported by the Foundation. The 2 daughters of this family would be married with children by now if they were not at school

Another one of the families supported by the Maria Cristina Foundation

The Foundation has also given single mothers in the community skills training, so they can open businesses

Streets of the slum are not for the faint-hearted

Maria Conceicao with some of her 172 children

Maria on top of Mt Everest with the photo of her adoptive mother Cristina

Announcement of Maria’s big challenge