During the 1930s and 1940s, my parents helped in the running of the South Melbourne Mission in Market Street. At that time, South Melbourne was a slum area. Families were unable to feed and clothe their children. Fathers, husbands and brothers had become victims to two world wars, making dire situations even worse.
I particularly remember Christmas time at the mission. Determined to give the children a memorable Christmas, my parents canvassed city businesses for donations, food, clothing and toys. Cigarettes were even donated for parents of the children by WD Wills. Mum sat up until midnight for weeks, sewing clothes for the gifts of celluloid dolls, including tiny shoes from scraps of soft leather donated by Goodchild's Shoe Factory. She sewed floral frocks for every little girl so that they could dress up for the mission Christmas party. When the day arrived, toys were distributed by a chuckling Santa Claus (Dad) and Mum led the singing as we stood in a circle clutching flickering candles belting out "All Things Bright and Beautiful".
I always suspected that my father's dedication and drive may have stemmed from the fact that he spent years of his own childhood in a Melbourne orphanage. Memories of heartfelt warmth mixed with inexplicable sadness associated with those underprivileged children, many of whom Mum and Dad brought home for visits, have stayed with me all my life. Decades have passed but never again had I encountered anything like the spirit of that mission. Well, not until the end of last year when I had the privilege of visiting a Balinese orphanage and meeting its founder and guiding light, an angel called Alison Chester.
English-born Alison, now an Indonesian citizen, and her Javanese husband Yanto named their orphanage after Jodie O'Shea, a young Australian woman who died as a result of the Bali bombings. Alison visited Jodie and other victims in hospital after the bombings and was deeply moved by Jodie's courage, dignity and strength, explaining that she and her husband named their orphanage after Jodie as a reminder that out of the most tragic events, truly wonderful acts of humanitarianism can blossom.
"Since 2005, when we opened our orphanage, the children have undergone an amazing transformation. All of them arrived here malnourished, not all of them orphans. Their parents were simply unable to feed and clothe them. The decision to send them to an orphanage to provide them with a better life must have been a difficult and heartbreaking one," says Alison.
Initially, many of the families had entrusted their children to an orphanage that subjected them to severe physical, mental and emotional abuse, including the administration of electric shocks. Alison's orphanage began after she and Yanto chose to give money and time to the corrupt one, not realising at first that the children were being abused and the monetary donations embezzled. When they found out, they put a plan into place to save 15 of the children, taking them into their own home until, with the aid of donations from local communities and businesses, their own orphanage was built. Even while it was being constructed, "heavies" were employed by the owners of the corrupt one to intimidate and threaten them. Alison's orphanage is now home to over 40 children who are experiencing a life they could never have dreamed of, including a healthy diet, an education, being nurtured and cared for and having the freedom to simply be children.
A couple of years ago, my daughter Simone became patron of the Jodie O'Shea orphanage and visits regularly. In September of last year, I was thrilled to be able to accompany her. Simone, along with Michael Klim, Australia's gold medallist Olympic swimmer, had been asked to launch a project that the orphanage is affiliated with - the Sumba Water Project. Many of the orphanage's children come from Sumba, an arid, poverty stricken island to the east of Bali. Although it has a population of 10,000 people, there is no running water, few toilets and most families cannot even afford to buy rice. The orphanage became involved with the Sumba Water project in a bid to build 50 wells within the next two years, the cost of each well being US$1,000.
The launch was an emotionally charged evening. Michael and his wife Lindy were so affected by the plight of thousands of desperately poor Sumbans, they committed themselves to ongoing involvement and Michael is now patron of the wells project.
The entire time I visited there, I found myself fighting back tears as childhood memories of the South Melbourne mission flooded back. Seeing how the beautiful Indonesian children loved my daughter reminded me of how the mission children had loved my parents.
When I asked about the future of the children in her care, Alison said, "We have to be able to recognise their skills and also consider which qualifications would be useful in their own villages if they return. At the moment, they are attending local primary schools and the Australian International School allows them to use their computer laboratory. Some of the children have received scholarships through local soccer teams and surfing clubs. We will continue to support them into adulthood and make sure they become established in jobs most suited for each individual."
Alison, herself a mother and grandmother, wakes at 4am every day and often works until 9 at night. The love and light she emanates touches everyone - children, workers, volunteers the entire community.
When we arrived in Bali, the water lilies in our hotel's muddy pond were closed buds. The day we departed, they had opened up, their shiny pink petals embracing the sun - a poignant reminder that from the murkiest depths, incredible beauty can arise.
For more information on the Jodie O'Shea Orphanage, or to donate, visit or volunteer, please go to their website www.careforkidsbali.com