By Kevin Wondrash Catholic News Service
MARSHALL, Wis. (CNS) — There aren’t many women in their mid-20s who would give up a teaching career and move to a southern African country to help young women leave a life of abuse and prostitution.
But sometimes all it takes is one person to make a difference.
Mary-Kate Martin, 28, a member of Holy Family Parish serving Marshall and Waterloo, is one such person.
She is founder and executive director of Hosea’s Heart, a nonprofit organization that works with girls in Swaziland to overcome sexual abuse by serving their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
The organization was named for Hosea, an Old Testament prophet whom God commanded to pursue and marry a prostitute as a reflection of God’s passionate love. The prostitute, Gomer, keeps returning to a life on the streets and Hosea keeps pursuing her.
“That’s like God’s love,” Martin told the Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.
Martin’s journey to Swaziland began when she was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and “could not focus” on her schoolwork any longer.
“All I could think about was Africa and it was something God kept putting on my heart again and again,” said Martin, who was inspired by the work of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata.” She put all of her schoolwork aside one evening and searched on the Internet for mission trips in Africa.
Martin found one in Swaziland, a country roughly twice the size in area of the Diocese of Madison and with a population of 1.4 million. For two months during the summer of 2008, Martin tutored children at a school there.
There she met a 12-year-old girl named Tenele who would change her life forever.
Tenele was being physically abused by her stepmother during the day and sold for the use of men at night.
“That’s when God put his heart in my heart for her and she started calling me ‘mother’ and I called her my child,” Martin said.
Tenele was just one example of many girls in Swaziland who are sexually abused or forced into prostitution.
After that summer, Martin knew she’d go back but was unsure when.
“My burdened heart for Tenele and kids I met and left just grew and my life completely changed after that,” she said.
She returned to Swaziland the following summer and started looking for longer-term work there as she neared college graduation.
After graduating in 2010, Martin moved to Swaziland for the next year to help more girls in trouble.
“That was one of the most difficult years of my life,” Martin said, as she would see the girls who were pregnant being expelled from school “and not being able to help.”
After she returned to the United States to teach at in La Crescent, Minnesota, Martin said she was “living with broken dreams” wanting to open a home for the troubled girls in Swaziland, but with no definite plans.
Martin turned to prayer and before long her prayers were answered after meeting a friend from high school for coffee. Hearing her story, he suggested she start a nonprofit to help build a home for the girls. It became Hosea’s Heart.
Balancing her teaching job and trips to Swaziland in summers for the next couple of years, Hosea’s Heart renovated a building and opened the home for girls.
“Almost all of them (the girls) have been raped or sexually abused or completely orphaned,” Martin said.
“Our (goal) is to feed them spiritually, physically and emotionally,” she added.
The girls also receive counseling, which Martin said is usually overlooked in Swaziland, as well as food and clothing. All come through donations.
There are nightly Bible study sessions, prayer or worship which the girls take turns leading.
Hosea’s Heart offers a workshop for girls in which Martin and several volunteers teach skills such as making jewelry or scarves that can be sold to help them escape prostitution.
“They can get out of selling their body and sell something else,” Martin said.
Since quitting her teaching job in 2013, Martin has been living in Swaziland “indefinitely.” She returns home once or twice a year for fundraising and time with family.
Martin has the help of family members in the U.S. Her mother, Peg, serves as director of product development and training, and her brother, Garret, is media relations director.
Current efforts focus on raising funds to build a new home for girls. Martin said the organization wants to raise $120,000 by December to buy the land and build a home that is large enough for the girls, staff and volunteers.
Hosea’s Heart also wants to start a program for young mothers who have left prostitution and have young children and need help caring for them.
In Swaziland, Martin has the help of two staff members as well as a volunteer team that visits every summer.
Martin said she feels like she is the “single mother of 15 girls.”
“I knew I would be the guardian, but I didn’t know I would be the mother and deal with so much of the discipline,” she explained.
It’s all for the girls and women though, and many of their lives are getting better.
“They’ve been living so long without dreams,” said Martin.
Now they have them.
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Wondrash is on the staff of the Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Madison. For more information on Hosea’s Heart go online at http://www.hoseasheart.org.