September 4, 2009 - KUPANG, Indonesia
- Budi Soehardi, nominated for the CNN Hero of the Year, founded
an orphanage to help children in Indonesia. "Mr. Budi is
like my own father," one resident says. Soehardi and his
wife harvest their own rice to sustain the orphanage. At Roslin
Orphanage, children giggle through deep concentration as they
try to master the "Chicken Dance." It's a far cry
from the Indonesian orphans' earlier months and years.
"They are cheerful-looking and photogenic, but close to
all have a very sad story," said Budi Soehardi, founder
of the West Timor orphanage. "Some of the babies come because
a mother passes away right after delivery because of lack of
nutrition. Others come from extreme poverty. Some come from
families [that] just do not want the children and abandon them,"
Soehardi, a 53-year-old Indonesian pilot living in Singapore,
and his wife, Peggy, look after 47 children at the orphanage.
They have a personal relationship with each one, and consider
them part of their family. The couple named many of the children
since they entered the orphanage as babies -- some of them tiny
victims and refugees from the conflict in East Timor.
Soehardi has three children of
his own but says there is no difference between what he supplies
for his biological children and those living at the orphanage.
They all get clean living spaces, vaccinations, food, clothing
and vitamins from the United States.
"Mr. Budi is like my own father," said Gerson Mangi,
20, a resident at Roslin Orphanage. Mangi, who came to the orphanage
when he was 12 years old, had no means to attend school after
his parents died. Now, thanks to the educational training at
Roslin and a private sponsor, he is in medical school. Soehardi,
whose father died when he was 9 years old, can relate to these
young people's hardships. "Food was hard to come by and
my school fee was very difficult," Soehardi said. "The
refugees just really strike me so badly and [I want] them to
be better off."
Young victims of a fight for
A 1999 news report on the situation in East Timor inspired the
Soehardis to take action. Soehardi was eating dinner and watching
CNN with his wife and family at home in Singapore when he saw
the plight of the refugees fleeing East Timor for West Timor,
Indonesia. Families were living in cardboard boxes, children
were wearing rags for clothes, and sanitation was nonexistent.
"It was devastating," Soehardi said. The poor conditions
were a result of conflicts in East Timor that surfaced after
the residents voted for independence from Indonesia. Following
the election, militias -- with support from Indonesian security
forces -- launched a campaign of violence throughout the region.
Hundreds of East Timorese were killed, and as many as 250,000
were displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Soehardis had been planning
on taking a vacation, but watching the news made them rethink
their plans. "[My wife and I] look at each other and we
have a thought of our own. ... 'Hey, let's do something else.
Why don't we visit the place ... to make a different kind of
holiday,' " Soehardi said. He began coordinating financial
donations, food, clothing and supplies. With help from friends
and ground volunteers, the Soehardis navigated the conflict-ridden
areas and delivered more than 40 tons of food, medical supplies
and toiletries to East Timor refugee camps.
Soon the Soehardis determined
West Timor could use a space for orphans. "My wife was
initially asking me to build three rooms. Then two hours later
she [asked for] five rooms, and then later nine rooms and finally,
the orphanage building." They completed their orphanage
building in 11 months and named it Roslin Orphanage, after a
pair of Timorese women whom Peggy looked up to as a girl. In
April 2002, the orphanage opened and provided a home for four
children. Since then the residence has expanded to provide free
education, clothing, housing and food for 47 children of all
ages, newborns to university-age. About half of its residents
are younger than 8 years old.
An unexpected harvest
The orphanage was built on donated land that the Soehardis initially
thought bore barren soil. But today, the rice they feed the
children comes solely from their own land. "We dared to
take the challenge," said Soehardi of his foray into irrigation.
He and Peggy, who are not trained in agriculture, used two pumps
and a generator to get water for irrigation.
Then they began planting rice. "One hundred days later,
we were having our first harvest and declared ourselves to be
self-sufficient on rice for the orphanage children," he
said. It's a fortunate cost-cutting tactic, especially with
Soehardi losing his piloting job in November because of the
Soehardi, whose pilot salary
goes toward maintaining the orphanage and funding medical student
Mangi's education, is hopeful that the end of his contract will
not affect the children's well-being. "To help these children
is a privilege for me and my wife because it's giving back to
society ... giving back what has been blessed to us."