Mary Tidlund opens her photo album and points to a picture of a simple schoolhouse dwarfed by the thick foliage of Ecuador’s jungle.
“It has only one room. They even line the desks up outside for some of the classes,” the former oilpatch executive recently told Grade 3 students at Calgary’s Waldorf School. The class exchanges letters with the South American pupils.
“They love getting your notes, and today I have brought you a gift they made,” Tidlund says, holding up a clay bird.
Caring, sharing and giving — it’s the philosophy of the Mary A. Tidlund Charitable Foundation which financially supports and participates in medical and literacy programs in developing countries. It also co-ordinates a pen pal program between children in Calgary and South America.
“We make a point of going where no one else wants to go,” says Tidlund, who laughs in disbelief when explaining the primitive conditions under which she has worked.
“It’s chaos at times. There’s no electricity, so you’re working with equipment that has to be powered by generator or battery. There are babies crying. People are lined up at your door before you even open.”
And then there are the snakes and insects that share her sleeping quarters. “But when you’ve helped someone, and see that light in their eye, it makes everything worthwhile,” Tidlund says.
The jungles of Peru and Ecuador are a long way from the corporate boardrooms Tidlund once toiled in as an oilpatch executive.
Graduating with a science degree in geography from the University of Calgary in 1980, Tidlund spent the next five years as a negotiating landman with PanCanadian Petroleum.
In 1989, she co-founded Williston Wildcatters Oil Corp., a junior oil and gas exploration company, and one of the first companies in Canada to conduct horizontal drilling. In five years, Wildcatters grew from a private to public company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It was once valued at $35 million.
Based out of the tiny town of Arcola in southeastern Saskatchewan, Tidlund and her partners refurbished many of the town’s historic buildings, turning the space into the company’s offices, as well as a clothing store, art gallery and restaurant. The company employed more than 250 people, most of them hired locally.
In 1993, she received a national entrepreneurial award for her impact on a local community. That same year, she was also an Alberta regional finalist in the Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.
“It all comes from my belief that you should give something back,” says Tidlund, who was adopted at age seven and raised with three other adopted children by parents that fostered at least 40 other children.
“I guess that’s where my sense of caring came from. It was all around me.” Williston Wildcatters eventually ran into trouble. It made the mistake of combining exploration with oilfield services, Tidlund says. Because oil and gas companies keep their drilling information secret, few wanted to hire Wildcatters’ service side, fearing the exploration arm of the company would take advantage of the information.
Williston Wildcatters went bankrupt, but it opened the door to another adventure.
She sought solace while trekking in Bhutan and Nepal, and she also discovered how far $10,000 could go in a developing nation.
So, in 1998, she formed her public foundation as a way to help others. She takes no income from the foundation, instead choosing to live off stock market investments.
Relying on fund-raisers as well as individual and corporate donations, the foundation in its first year raised $25,000 in cash, services and supplies. It has participated in a joint project with Operation Eyesight in northern India, assisting with cataract operations and intraocular lens implantations.
Thousands of children and adults have been treated in Peru and Ecuador, where Tidlund travels with a foundation doctor, working closely with local doctors, dentists and nurses.
Patients are treated for malnutrition, stomach disorders caused by parasites, respiratory ailments, malaria and tuberculosis.
Tidlund’s helping hand also extends to the needy in her hometown Calgary, where the foundation has cooked and served meals for the homeless at the Mustard Seed Street Ministry. Last October, Tidlund received the Black Achievement Award for Humanitarianism in Alberta.
She knocks on corporate doors, urging the CEOs she once lunched with to share their wealth.“But it’s not just enough to give money,” she says. “You have to make sure the right people get it. And you have to know how it is being used.”
Literacy is also a gift she is attempting to pass along. “A lot of the people don’t know how to read so I have to draw them pictures to explain things.”
“There’s so much culture shock when you go there,” she says. “And then there is culture shock when I come home again.”