Agency's new president has a global view of relief work

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2009 - 6:26 AM

Isabella Wordsworth arrived in the Twin Cities three weeks ago after years of enviable globe-trotting: India, Shanghai, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Her focus now is to finish first grade.

Such is life for "Bella," all of 7, and just getting wind of the fact that her father's career is rather less conventional than that of most parents. "Tell her the story about the monkey getting into the house, Daddy," she suggests over chocolate milk and crayons at a suburban breakfast spot, her white-blonde hair pulled back in a glittery silver headband, her seafoam-blue eyes as big as saucers.

Daddy's dealt with more than monkeys. In the past 20 years, Australian-born Daniel Words-worth, a former Australian Navy man and pilot, has devoted his life to humanitarian work. Those efforts have taken him into slums, jungles and refugee camps from Latin America to Africa to Albania. He's been introduced to black magic, smuggled aid money inside his shoes and experienced the chill of being on the receiving end of a pointed AK-47 in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

Life could seem deadly dull in his new position as president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee (www.ARCrelief.org), the finest humanitarian relief organization that most Twin Citians have never heard of. Wordsworth's instincts for adventure make that unlikely.

"I don't think the world is the way it should be," said the soft-spoken new chief, drinking coffee. "We have to remind folks in the Twin Cities that this agency belongs to them as a way to make a difference."

While Wordsworth, 42, attended naval college in Australia and is trained as a commercial pilot, he spent his early career flying by the seat of his pants. He was born in Tamworth, Australia, a rural area of about 30,000 people. After his parents' divorce, he and his younger brother were raised by their father; his sister moved to a neighboring city with their mother. His dad sold newspapers and was a classic "character" who wore an eye patch, bred Arabian horses with Welsh mining ponies and played pranks on the neighbors.

Daniel was a more sober fellow who, at 21, became house parent to a half-dozen severely abused children, including two babies who had been locked in a closet for two months. "I was completely out of my depth," he says.

In other words, it was a perfect fit. "One day I was hanging out the laundry and I thought, 'Twelve months ago, you were an officer in the Navy.' But I was just as happy to be there. I didn't come from church, but I read the Beatitudes, and it made sense to me. Either you can let things happen or you don't. But you have to stand up for something."

After six months, he and three friends rented a five-bedroom house and opened it to homeless street kids, heroin addicts, former prisoners, no questions asked. From there, he began church work, sending middle-class kids into slums in India (where he met Mother Teresa), Indonesia and the Ukraine.

In 1994, he and his wife, Australian opera singer, Sandra Partridge, 41, moved to Hong Kong, where he continued his work with youth and Indian migrant workers.

He returned to Australia and was hired by Christian Children's Fund to work in countries that included Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, where he helped to establish a school for thousands of refugee children. He joined Christian Children Fund's home base in Richmond, Va., in 2000, later traveling to Thailand to do aid work after the devastating tsunami there.

After 12 years with Christian Children's Fund, he left in 2007 to join a team doing business startups in China, before accepting the top post with Minneapolis-based ARC.

The family plans to close on a house in Plymouth this week. Then they'll fulfill a familiar promise to Bella -- getting a dog -- although Daddy says it won't be a Portuguese water dog.

Partridge, who has won numerous prizes in national and international competitions, is eager to make her own mark here. She made her solo debut in 1998 with Opera Australia as Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro," and has such roles as Virtue in "The Coronation of Poppea" and the Queen of the Night for Bangkok Opera's production of "The Magic Flute."

Wordsworth says the key to ARC's endurance, formed 30 years ago by nurses and doctors as the world was learning of the Cambodian genocide and now focused on refugees in Pakistan and the Congo, is simple. "It's free of moral ambiguity," he said. "They bring in people like me because I know how to run organizations like this. But it's not about me. It's about refugees and workers in the field."

It's also about Bella.

"I don't want my child to look and me and ask, 'Daddy, were you alive when Darfur was happening?' You can do things," Wordsworth said, "and, frankly, it's not all that hard."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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