Sara Michel has been regional animator for Development & Peace since September 2010.
With degrees in history and international affairs, Sara Michel has held positions with Canada's departments of defence and foreign affairs – both sweet jobs with high pay and plenty of benefits.
But the job that has made her the happiest is that of regional animator for the Alberta/Mackenzie region of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Church's international development organization.
"Getting a position with D&P was probably one of the biggest miracles and blessings in my life," Michel, 29, said in a recent interview. "I thank God everyday for it, without exaggeration."
When Michel was doing her master's she did evaluations of non-profit organizations, including CCODP. "It was one of the most respectable, efficient, best models that I had studied. So I had a lot of respect for this organization," she said.
Moreover, at CCODP Michel uses her faith, education and experience for a purpose that she firmly believes in.
"It's not the easiest job. It's challenging, it's dynamic and also you can never get bored."
Development and Peace is one of Canada's leading non-governmental organizations. Its general mission is to foster a sense of local ownership in the world's poorest communities and to promote a development approach that encourages individuals to participate in the democratic process and communities to assume the management of their own economic, political, social and cultural development.
Michel was hired as regional animator in September 2010 and is responsible for education and awareness within the organization. She carries out her mandate using strategies such as education campaigns, dialogue on policies, lobbying, communications and advocacy.
"In this year's campaign we are saying 'Go to your farmers' market'; something as little as that makes a difference. Think about where your food is coming from, even just go out and support our local farmers," she says.
Since Michel took over, a significant number of parishes have increased support for CCODP and the number of Thinkfasts in schools and parishes has doubled. Currently there are 700 members of CCODP in the region, more than half from the Edmonton Archdiocese.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Coptic Christians, Michel spent the first 12 years of her life in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Both her parents worked there as physicians.
The United Arab Emirates has no universities for non-locals so Michel's parents moved to Canada, arriving in Alberta in 1995.
It wasn't easy for the Michels to find work as physicians. "It was a horror story. My dad suffered a heart attack from the stress. My mom never practised again but my dad now has a clinic but it took him about five years."
A gifted student, Michel was allowed to skip a grade at Archbishop MacDonald High School and entered university at age 15. Her sister Monica entered at age 16.
Michel qualified for pre-medicine at McGill University but chose to study history because "I love the human story. I needed to know the history of humanity if I were to have any impact."
She studied in France for a couple of summers and did her thesis in France. She also earned a certificate in Middle Eastern and African Studies.
A few months after she graduated, Michel got a job in the Department of National Defence in Ottawa. A year into her job "I was yearning for something more" so she started taking her master's in conflict analysis and resolution at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs.
She eventually got a job with Foreign Affairs Department. She left after 18 months. "While I was in government I took a leave of absence because I felt that my heart was in the developing world," she said.
"So I went to Cuba (in 2007) and I worked there with a local non-profit organization working on a farm." She stayed for just a few months. "This was probably the first experience that really whetted my appetite to work in the developing world."
She returned to Ottawa and thought, "government (work) is not for me. It's a mismatch. I really liked working the land. I liked being with youth. I liked doing education. So I came back with the intention of travelling again, pretty much."
At that point Michel took an extended leave of absence from government and went to Bolivia to work with the churches in an underdeveloped community in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
"That was a more challenging experience and sort of added to my academic awareness of what real development means," she explained.
"I say this in a very blunt way to a lot of people – development to me doesn't mean us, the more fortunate, going to help them, the less fortunate. It's not about us doing things for locals that they can't do for themselves.
"I think that real development is to help them build capacities and not with the arrogant intention of going to do things for people."
When she visits schools, Michel often hears students say they want to go on missions to other places.
"I say when we go on mission that's part of the see process; it's not part of the act process. The act happens here, when you come back and you become a voice of awareness and education to those around you.
"That's where the real struggle happens. The real struggle isn't in a person enduring what seem to be less comfortable situations."
A few months after she came back from Bolivia, Michel got a job with the UN World Food Program in Rome. After a year in that job she returned to Edmonton in late 2009 for family reasons.
"I was sort of done jumping around the world. I needed roots and community but I had no idea what I would be doing in Edmonton."
By then Michel was convinced that she could make more of a difference living in Canada than in the developing world.
"I think I had become what I view the best model of development, which is to be the voice (of the poor) here and to do education here, where I find is the greatest poverty - poverty in mind and poverty in awareness."
While in Bolivia Michel felt chained. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to do because there are so many dynamics in the developing world; there is a culture of poverty and no matter how much I became part of the community I was always outside of the community.
"Over here, I'm part of this community. I make way more of a difference here."
Michel says getting the position of regional animator was a dream come true. Her ministry encompasses five dioceses – Edmonton, Calgary, St. Paul, Grouard-McLennan and Mackenzie-Fort Smith. She travels a lot, "which is why I'm not in my office as much as people would like me to be."
"It's also part of my mission not to be the person that just sits in Edmonton. I think the outreach is really important, especially in the areas that don't get to see the animator as much, such as rural areas."
"I think for the first time I can say 'I think I can grow old in this organization,'" Michel said with a smile.