Martha Hart draws on life experiences to help others through the Owen Hart Foundation
MARTHA HART, founder and director of the Owen Hart Foundation, remembers vividly the moment when she knew her husband’s untimely death in a wrestling accident would become an unstoppable force for doing good.
She had sat alone in her kitchen at twilight, the landscape disappearing into shadows as she cradled a phone in her hand, listening to her lawyer.
“I was going through a terrible wrongful death lawsuit after Owen had died,” Hart says. “I learned the justice I was seeking would have to come in the form of a settlement rather than criminal charges. In that moment—a millisecond, really—it came to me that I would start a foundation to make the world a better place in his name.”
That was 20 years ago. Since then, the Owen Hart Foundation, established at Calgary Foundation to honour her late husband, has granted almost $2 million to charitable organizations with a focus on education and poverty.
Of that amount, the Foundation has distributed more than $700,000 through 10 annual scholarships including awards of $4,000 each to Calgary high school students who each have a minimum grade average but demonstrate effort, attitude and leadership and also hold down a part-time job.
“As soon as I made that decision, I set out to make the world lighter and brighter,” says Hart, who continues to work in Calgary while travelling the world on charitable missions.
She has done so with the help of her son Oje, 27, a lawyer with a focus on human rights and international law, and her daughter Athena, 23, a journalism graduate who supports animal rights. A proud, active mom, Hart says her children’s concerns inform her own work with the foundation.
“The foundation is in Owen’s name, but we do it as a family,” she says.
Hart and her 10 siblings grew up in Calgary’s Inglewood community during a time when it was not as gentrified as it is today. Those early days continue to influence her and drive her mission to help others who need a hand up.
“I was a poor kid,” she says. “Even then, I was sympathetic to people in need and I always tried to give back. The foundation has allowed me to be more generous. It’s an opportunity to promote giving back to the community.”
A program to help parents with kids at the Alberta Children’s Hospital meet basic financial needs such as hotel, food and parking expenses is one of many Hart has initiated.
The hospital, where she works as a University of Calgary researcher in pediatrics, is a special place for Hart. She earned two degrees at the U of C in psychology and sociology before completing her Master’s and PhD degrees at the University of Cambridge in England.
Hart and Cumming School of Medicine colleague Nicole Letourneau, under whom Hart did post-doctoral research, have developed a parenting program entitled ATTACH that has launched in Calgary to help vulnerable families. The program is designed to help parents affected by issues such as mental health problems, addictions, family violence and poverty by improving parental reflective functioning skills.
“I work with a lot of individuals who are at risk and it means a lot to me that I can help them through my work and research, as well as doing charitable works with the foundation,” Hart says.
There are three Owen Hart Foundation signature programs. First, the Owen Hart Scholarship Fund covers awards offered at Calgary schools including Forest Lawn, Western Canada, Ernest Manning, Crescent Heights and Sir Winston Churchill to recognize students who are motivated to improve their lives through education.
Second, the Owen Hart Home Owners Program, administered by Momentum, a Calgary community economic development organization, offers people living in low-income situations the opportunity to save for a down payment for a home. It also helps them develop money-management skills with an emphasis on home ownership.
“Growing up impoverished gave me an understanding of the importance of having money for education and the importance of affordable housing for families,” Hart says. “These are problems that I lived, so I know how important this kind of help can be.”
Third, the Owen Hart Partnership Program joins forces with other worthwhile causes, which to date have exceeded more than 35 organizations. The main partnership is with the For the Love of Children Society with which the foundation has done numerous humanitarian trips in support of schools all over the world, including Peru, India, Nepal, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China and the Philippines.
“I love the idea of collaborating with great causes, so that we can expand what we do with the foundation,” Hart says. “It’s all about partnerships and getting together to do good in the world.”
Ensuring that needy kids have healthy lunches to eat at school is another one of the many programs funded by the foundation.
“You can’t concentrate on school when you’re hungry,” says Hart. “We have initiatives under the foundation’s umbrella of education to ensure students have the best possible opportunities to learn.”
Another program Hart is excited about is the annual Backpack Giveaway, which the foundation created and funds. Working this year with the charitable organization Alberta Computers for Schools, the program provides computers to needy families along with filled backpacks for back to school.
‘Truly a gift’
The foundation’s annual fundraiser, which brings top stars to the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, is perhaps its best-known event. Two performances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld highlight this year’s 20th anniversary lineup.
The mid-October event features a celebrity online auction with prizes including NFL, Grey Cup and Calgary Flames tickets, luxury vacations, WestJet vouchers, sport memorabilia and more.
“Twenty years after Owen’s death, I know the foundation will always have a sad beginning, but it has become what I envisioned—a celebration of his amazing life,” says Hart. “I believe he would be very happy with what we’ve accomplished so far. For me, being able to help so many others, it is truly a gift.”
Story by By Mike Fisher • Photography by Jared Sych