Pilot takes orphans under his wing

Pilot Budi Soehardi still remembers the first time he saw young children abandoned in the streets after violence erupted in East Timor.

"It hit me hard," he said. "It was so painful to watch."

Fourteen years on, he has 148 children who call him "Pa" after he set up an orphanage to shield vulnerable young people from the horrors of war.

"You do not need to wait till you strike the lottery to help others," he told an audience at the National Young Leader's Day event in Singapore. "Share your love and care with others... and do not procrastinate."

Mr Soehardi was a Singapore Airlines captain preparing to go on a month-long vacation around the world when his life took a sudden and dramatic turn.

He was tucking into his dinner in front of the television when an image on the screen grabbed his attention - a family sharing one packet of instant noodles, supplemented by leaves and water.

It was 1999 and East Timor was plagued by unrest after its residents voted for independence from Indonesia.

Hundreds of East Timorese were killed and up to 250,000 displaced from their homes. As refugees fled to West Timor, families lived in cardboard boxes in filthy conditions.

Mr Soehardi shelved his holiday plans and instead delivered more than 40 tonnes of food and medical supplies to the refugee camps. He met young children who had witnessed horrific violence, been forced to cross the border alone or simply ended up abandoned on the streets.

Determined to protect them, he opened the Roslin orphanage in West Timor in 2002 - funding it mostly through his income as a pilot with Singapore Airlines.

There, young people ranging from newborn babies to 24-year-olds receive free education, clothing and food. The orphanage has just put its oldest child through medical school; three others are at university.

"I believe education can break the cycle of poverty," said the 57-year-old Indonesian, whose own father died when he was nine. "That's why there are always books in our orphanage."

Despite setting up the project, Mr Soehardi still lives in Singapore, where his three biological children grew up and studied.

The orphanage is run by his wife, Peggy, and five staff.

It costs about $17,000 a month, most of which comes from the pilot's own pocket.

The rest is from ad hoc donations, which have helped to give about 3,000 children in the neighbouring villages essentials such as school bags and access to books via a mobile library.

Though the finances are tight, the staunch Christian said he trusts in God to provide.

He told The Straits Times how he and his wife kept having the same dream for six months. In it, the land around the orphanage was fertile and everything they planted grew. "This was as far from reality as it could get," he said. "The land was full of thorny bushes and West Timor is the driest province in Indonesia."

Yet the couple took a gamble as they wanted to create padi fields to be self-sufficient. Despite derision from sceptical neighbours, they spent three days drilling manually into the rocky ground.

On the fourth day, they struck "gold". Natural spring water burst forth and they used it to irrigate the fields. Today, the older children help out in the fields. As well as rice, they grow papaya, mangoes and dragonfruit, some of which are exported.

Mr Soehardi continues to dream big. He is building a 1,400 sq m kindergarten, which will be ready in September. A clinic is next in line.

Back home, he is the founder of the Rotary E-Club of Singapore and takes the elderly on outings. He also scours one-room flats for those who lack furniture, which is then supplied by the club.

His work with orphans led to him being named as one of CNN's Top 10 Heroes of 2009.

Speaking at last Thursday's Young Leader's Day event, which was organised by youth leadership group Halogen Foundation Singapore, he urged youngsters to develop their potential.

"All of us are already rich in smiles, time and knowledge."


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