How many young people dream of being a missionary when they grow up? When she could have been a world class soccer or tennis player, Mary Beth Gallagher, 48, of Ossining, New York, imagined herself living and working with needy children in a third world country. She lived into her dream in Namibia, Africa.
After graduating from Siena College, she cut her teeth doing mission work in El Salvador and Bangladesh. Mary Beth’s work in Namibia began as a Maryknoll Volunteer in 2005. Now, eight years later, she does not look worse for the wear! Her exuberance and vitality flows onto her charges. Her lifework is the Bernard Nordkamp Center in Katutura, Windhoek and the capital of Namibia in Africa which has the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Botswana on the east, Angola to the north and South Africa to the south.
Mary Beth’s project is situated in Holy Redeemer Parish and is located next door to the church. Friar Joe Hund, a Franciscan priest from St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, is mission superior there and he describes Mary Beth in golden terms. “She helps our children by inspiring them with her actions and words. She instills solid Christian virtues. After working with her, our kids excel in math and English. Their sports skills skyrocket.” Father Joe reflected on Mary Beth’s good spirit and sense of humor. “She has brought about transformation in lost children who have been neglected or abused. She has boundless energy and will not give up on them!”
Mary Beth is candid about what gets her jump started every day. “The children motivate me. They keep me going! I am the one having all the fun! I spend my days with beautiful children. I am charged by the love they give and get overwhelmed that some of these children come from dire, abusive circumstances. I get all the joy and happiness and laughter.” So many of the skills she learned as a girl have been paid forward as a popular film described. Her teaching, writing, soccer, swimming and tennis abilities have been shared with the children as have every other gift she has, guitar and game making included.
What Mary Beth isn’t telling us is that many of the children who come to her have intense special needs. 17% of Namibia’s children are orphans, most often from one or both parents dying of HIV/AIDS or AIDS related diseases like tuberculosis or pneumonia. That means 70,000 are orphans due to the epidemic. When parents die and leave the child in a state of abandonment, their life expectancy becomes reduced. In 1991, orphaned children could hope to live 61 years. In 2001 the prognosis fell to 49 years of life.
Mary Beth and her good work are well placed. Namibia has one of the highest rates of children at risk in the world. Children can be born with AIDS or contract it due to child abuse. Many of HIV/AIDS positive children there have not been diagnosed. 13 % of the 250,000 needy children in the country are vulnerable, but they are not orphans. If the parent or guardian is ill, from the chronic disease, the child becomes at risk.
Mary Beth describes her charges. “Some are lost souls who suffer from lack of food and abject poverty. “ Many times, at her own expense, Mary Beth feeds, clothes, buys supplies and provides educational opportunities. She builds on their fractured self esteem. Very seriously, she explains, “Many people from 18 to 40 have died from AIDS. It is not unusual for young people in Africa to have to care for themselves because they have lost their parents or other key members of their family due to this tragic illness. Sometimes it is complicated by the family member’s addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Mary Beth leads a simple life, but she doesn’t consider this as a sacrifice. Volunteers from the USA, UK, Europe and Canada assist her by giving themselves to the project for a couple weeks to several months. Each one brings talents and materials that enhance the program. When she doesn’t have exactly what she needs to help her students, she creates it by recycling materials to create games and other learning tools.
Several years ago students from Utah Valley University made a documentary called “Best Namibian Children” about her and her work. In a touching scene, one of her students is quoted, “I am a tall and handsome boy! I like myself!” He is so comfortable with himself and it is said in such an ingenuous way, viewers accept that it isn’t conceit, that truly, he has become a believer in himself. Perhaps that self esteem, self respect and achievement through learned new skills, will make him a leader tomorrow. Mary Beth gets all the credit for transforming that little boy from being a “lost soul” to having heightened self pride.
Our Everyday Hero, Mary Beth Gallagher, doesn’t envision her retirement for quite some time. Why leave a candy box when it is still full of delectable treats?
If you wish further information or want to volunteer check out the following:
Joanne M. Queenan has also written, The Boys on the Rock, Listening to the Voices of the Homeless, published in 2012
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