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Bemidji native is Peace Corps volunteer in Africa

Mariah Stember Ortiz, a Bemidji native, is a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Namibia, where she is teaching English and working with women and girls on their education. — Submitted Photo

KALKFELD, Namibia – Previously focused on developing a career in international education, a trip to Kenya three summers ago changed Mariah Stember Ortiz’s life.

“It was clear that it was no longer a choice: My passion for human rights and international development was leading me in that direction,” she recently wrote in an email to the Pioneer.

Now a Peace Corps volunteer, Ortiz is serving in Namibia, teaching English and working with women and girls on their education.

“I find the work here to be tremendously rewarding on many levels,” she wrote. “It is a rich experience, mainly because of the human connections and relationships that are developed.”

Conditions in the village are dire, she said. Many people are hungry and others have given up hope.

“(You) feel the intense level of need and are faced with a resource-scarce environmental on a daily basis,” she said. “There are many structural reasons why poor communities in Namibia live in poverty and I find it rewarding to accompany community members on their journey to realize their human rights.

“(The) Peace Corp very much focuses on the individual and grassroots level; if you can make a difference in someone’s life, you know you have done your job.”

International interest

A Bemidji High School graduate, Ortiz became interested in international experiences while attending Concordia Language Villages. Later, after graduating from St. Olaf College in Northfield, where she was given the opportunity to study German abroad, a professor suggested she consider a career in international education, perhaps working with international students or teaching English internationally.

Intrigued, she accepted a position with Montana State University in its international programs office. There, one of the short-term programs was studying young democracy in post-apartheid South Africa.

“Immediately, I was fascinated by the program, the country, and the students’ powerful experiences in the program,” she said.

She has remained interested in Africa ever since.

“My human rights journey began when I saw the film ‘Hotel Rwanda,’” she said. “There is a scene in the film where a jeep is driving over piles of dead bodies, victims of the genocide, and you sit just transfixed and horrified. This gave me a sense of moral outrage for the many atrocities taking place in the world, and I have been interested in human rights work ever since.”

She has volunteered with Amnesty International and other organizations in Mexico and Brazil.

But it was a trip to Kenya with a professor, Joel Ngugi, who now serves on the high court of Kenya, that changed Ortiz’s career path.

“This was a truly pivotal and life-changing experience and (it) deeply shaped my approach toward, and perspective on, human rights work,” said Ortiz, one of 15 students who traveled in summer 2010 to Kenya. “Professor Ngugi urged all of us to take a deeply ethical, critical and personal approach to human rights work. In retrospect, I am very grateful that I had the training that I did with professor Ngugi because it really changed the way that I approach my work with the Peace Corps.”

Ortiz, who first became interested in the Peace Corps when a recruiter visited St. Olaf, is one of 22 St. Olaf alums currently serving in the Peace Corps, according to the organization. That figure makes the college No. 2 among small colleges nationwide.

“Each (Peace Corps volunteer) must find their own unique niche,” she said. “The human drive and ego to ‘own’ projects and to ‘provide answers,’ etc., is a strong one. However, it is of the utmost importance that development work allows local leadership to take the helm.

“It is my local community that knows their culture, community and resources best. My job is to accompany them and to provide ideas, support, information, training, facilitations, etc., where I can. So it is an ongoing challenge to find the best realm within which to apply my time and energy.”

Bemidji offers help

Nearby in Namibia is a kindergarten, which has about 30 young children. None of the families can afford to pay fees so the school fully operates on donations.

When the school found that expected donor funds and supplies would not arrive as expected, Ortiz learned the children would not be fed.

So she sought help.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church of Bemidji supports Ortiz’s work in Africa so she reached out to see if the church would find it acceptable to use some funds to provide food to the kindergarteners.

St. Bartholomew’s agreed and named the effort one of its two mission projects for Lent, the other being the Mama Ada Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit that aims to stimulate economic development in a Kenyan province.

“That was a (mission) throughout the whole state of Minnesota for the (Episcopalian) church,” said Julia Plum, office administrator, with St. Bartholomew’s. “But we also wanted to do a project that touched us close to home.”

Ortiz and her parents, Dr. Larry and Susan Stember, are church members.

The congregation raised more than $1,000 for each mission project, more than $2,500 in total, throughout Lent, Plum said. Anyone who is interested in contributing may still do so by sending a check to the church: St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 1800 Irvine Ave. NW, Bemidji, MN 56601.

“It is very hard to express the deep impact that this donation has on our local community,” Ortiz said. “What is very sad and difficult to think about is that the meal that these small children (4-6 years old) receive at the kindergarten may be the only meal that they receive in any given day. My community counterpart who manages the kindergarten said that when the food shortage occurred, she was unable to feed the children on a Monday. And she could tell that many of the kids had not eaten all weekend.

“You can understand how upset she was when her regular donor didn’t provide food supplies. She feels a responsibility to the kids – and when she told me the story, I did too.

“We can’t solve every problem, but as Theodore Roosevelt said, we can ‘Do what you can, with you have, where you are.’”