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China Service Ventures: China recognizes Bemidji couple for youth outreach

Paul and Ida Martinson pore over a book of China landscapes, a gift they received during their recent ambassadorship to an international culture and tourism seminar at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

Paul and Ida Martinson were thrown into the spotlight during an international gathering earlier this month in Beijing, China.

They were recognized for a three-generation family tradition of missionary work, the establishment of a new education program for rural youth and future plans for redevelopment of a cultural exchange at a historic mountain retreat in Henan Province.

The Martinsons, representing China Service Ventures, were among 43 ambassadors from countries as widely separated as Azerbaijan, Herzegovina, Poland and Tunisia for the 2010 Jigongshan International Culture & Tourism Presentation Seminar Jan. 15 at the Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square in China's capital city.

Paul, a Lutheran minister, was born in China in 1934 to missionary parents. His connections in the country go back to his grandfather who started work as a missionary in China in 1902. Ida Martinson's work in China included nursing services, directing the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of nursing and research into childhood cancer in China and other Asian countries.

When the couple retired, they were seeking a new way to serve the people of China. The result in 2001 was China Service Ventures, an independent Lutheran organization based in China. The organization makes education possible for children in Henan Province, one of the poorest areas of the country, and the area where Paul's grandfather settled and he and his father were born.

Paul and Ida explained that education is officially free in China, but subject to fees for books and supplies of about $50 per year for the primary grades.

"These families were poor earning not even $100 a year," Ida said.

Paul said their goal was to work from the grassroots to develop trust and friendships among the people they served, rather than working from the top down through government agencies. As the project progressed, he said the Chinese government asked China Service Ventures to help the poor rural students also obtain high school educations. That meant finding funds for transportation and accommodations in towns away from the students' rural homes.

The project also reached out with assistance in health care, development and cultural exchanges, Paul said.

Ida said students who score with high marks on high school entry tests receive government support, but the less accomplished students must pay at a higher rate, about $500 per year. As opportunities open up through the individual and church-based donations to China Service Ventures, she said some of the underachieving students have blossomed into top performers in high school.

Last summer, China Service Ventures started a weeklong youth camp at Jogongshan (Rooster Mountain). Plans for the site are in the works to expand the camp as a multicultural retreat and tourist attractions and restore some of the buildings, including the American school Paul attended.

"It turned out the government really liked what the camp did," said Ida.

"The potential is great," Paul said during his speech at the Great Hall of the People international gathering. "Our funds are limited, but our connections for implementing these things are rich and ever growing."

He said the Chinese government and Chine Service Ventures now have a memorandum of understanding for a cooperative relationship, a document that allows the organization to register in China as a legitimate company.

The Martinsons said the organization's outreach has already accomplished good things and has promise for the future.

"We have plenty of challenges ahead of us," said Ida.