“If you are planning for a year, sow rice;
If you are planning for a decade, plant trees;
If you are planning for a lifetime then educate people”
If the aftermath of the South East Asian tsunami there was an unprecedented response from Australian’s and indeed from the citizens of the globe who saw the enormity of the death and destruction enter their living rooms via their television sets. The first report of the tsunami to Australian police working in Bangkok at the time was “there has been a tidal wave down in Phuket and there has been reports of some injuries, you may wish to follow up” What we know is that this could be one of the greatest understatements of our time. At the final count there would be 5395 souls who would perish in Thailand alone from the disaster. Across the globe it is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 people would lose their lives.
The response to Thailand, Indonesia and those countries heavily impacted upon was swift and decisive. Aid flowed to those countries and specialists from around the world arrived within days of the scale of the disaster becoming known.
The response to Thailand is similar to what I have witnessed working in disaster zones across the globe. I have worked in Indonesia following the bombings of 2002, Thailand after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, Saudi Arabia in 2010, Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and of course in Australia. The response is often immediate and reflects the preparedness of those charged with the responsibility of helping those in need. We witnessed similar efforts after the disaster in Nepal this year which also claimed thousands of lives and injured tens of thousands of others.
We respond well, but often we leave too quickly.
In the aftermath of crisis and disaster lots of people turn up to assist. Government, charities, corporate and other NGO’s all respond and often provide the immediate resources that are needed for those left homeless and indeed help sustain life. But too many leave too quickly. From the devastation to hit Brisbane and then Far North Queensland in January of 2011, we know that the cleaning of the debris doesn’t take away all the needs of those who have lost so much. Just because the needs of those are no longer the leading story on the six o’clock news, doesn’t mean their needs have gone away.
In the circumstances of the kids that we care for in Thailand, it’s ten years now since the disaster and their parents haven’t come back, of course they never will. In fact what we are witnessing now is the second generation of victims. The first home that we opened was for 32 kids, we now have 106. We’ve made some building additions to accommodate the demand just in case you were worrying where they all fit. But here’s the thing, right now in September of 2015, we need to build a new room just to house the babies. We have sixteen babies under the age of three and the government stipulation is that we have a room just for them.
Where are the kids coming from and how does it relate to this second generation of victims you ask? The best example is that of twins that joined us recently. Their mum, she lost her parents in the tsunami and much of her extended family. At the age of thirteen she gave birth to twins. What hope does the mum have of continuing her education and creating meaningful opportunities for herself, let alone her twin children? This is an example of the long term commitment that is required to bring about long term results.
At Hands Across the Water, the charity that I founded after working in Thailand and seeing those original 32 kids without a home and living in a tent, our commitment is long term and the measure of our success is not what you might think. This year we will pass $15million AUD raised since I formed the charity in October of 2005. But that is not the measure of our success. We have structured the charity so that 100% of all donations received goes to the kids and community we support. We do this through the existence of a commercial entity that sits next to the charity, it makes it’s own money through projects we undertake and then it underwrites the operating expenses of the charity and it’s a model that many of our donors really appreciate, but that too is not the measure of our success. We opened our seventh home in Thailand this year and now support many kids in need from very different circumstances. We support kids who have HIV or lost their parents to HIV, we support kids who have been trafficked in the sex industry, but the seven homes or 300 kids that we support each night is not the measure of our success and nor is the 380,000 meals that were provided last year.
Reflecting on what we have achieved over the last ten years, I often say it’s still too early to say if what we have done and are doing is working. Give it another five years and then I will have a clearer opinion. For me the success of Hands Across the Water is none of the statistics above, it’s how we change lives in a meaningful and sustained way. When we have kids who have spent the best part of their childhood with us leave our homes and go into a well paying career, then we can say we have achieved what we set out to do. At the moment, the jury is still out.
But we are working towards that. Right now we have 29 of our kids from across our various homes who are all in University studying everything from law, to management, agriculture, food and nutrition and even International Business Studies in Chinese. This is the start of changing the lives of our kids in a meaningful and sustained way. It’s a long term investment, but that’s what education is about and we think our kids are worth it.