Advocate for Bali's disadvantaged communities & Co-founder of SoleFamily
I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I discovered this wonderful island. But it was heartbreaking to see so many malnourished people all around Bali – the famous ‘paradise’ island!
Tell us your story – how did you get here?
After three decades in Shanghai, the UK and the Japanese fashion industry, I arrived in Bali in 2009 intending to relax in retirement. However, the first thing I did was project manage a 15-month initiative sponsored by the Rotary Club of Seminyak to build 20 wells in East Sumba. This gave water to over 2,000 people, as well as fruit and vegetables using the spillage from the wells.
Returning to Bali I created a fully registered health NGO to give back to the island I had chosen to retire in. Learning at that time that 75% of the orphanages were allegedly run as illegal businesses, I didn’t want to start to raise funds until I’d established some credibility, so that people would believe in my honesty and character. I therefore pledged to go barefoot until I’d raised one million dollars for my foundation (a milestone reached several years ago). Yayasan Solemen Indonesia was finally born.
In 2011, together with a couple of friends, we called ourselves the ‘Solemen’ and I completed two much-publicised 535km barefoot walks hosting health checks and workshops around Bali in order to establish credibility. Over the next decade I walked barefoot in Singapore, Hong Kong, California and in the deepest winter in the UK where I was featured on national television. During my second barefoot walk in 2012, I was operated on on a school desk for a serious foot injury, resulting in me being forced to complete the walk on crutches.
What initially was a decision driven by empathy for those who couldn’t afford to wear shoes, finally established credibility for myself as someone with integrity as an honest and passionate person people could trust to lead a charity. The walks were a good way to publicise the plight of the poor, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter with a retired UK nurse, Sarah Chapman, that things began to really click and fall into place.
Meeting ‘Angel’ Sarah Chapman was a real turning point for Solemen. Kadek Ani, eight years-old and just six kilos, fortuitously brought me and Sarah together. Sarah had been riding on the back of a motorbike six hours a day, three days a week, to visit Ani – a severely malnourished little girl with multiple health issues. I reached out after reading her story on Facebook and together, we made sure that Ani received the care and medical attention she needed. This resulted in her being given the most wonderful few months of joy before she sadly unexpectedly died. Her legacy continues as she became the catalyst inspiring the birth of Solemen’s Outreach programmes.
In June 2015, the Governor of Bali, Mangku Made Pastika, announced himself as Solemen’s ‘Pelindung’ at a fundraising event at Hard Rock Hotel Kuta. Sarah and I are both really proud and honoured since then to have become passionate and tireless ‘volunteer’ leaders of Solemen (now SoleFamily), dedicating our lives to those in need in Bali whilst putting smiles on the faces of so many.
This year we celebrate the 11th anniversary of our Outreach programmes. SoleFamily now holistically has assisted more than 800 families and people of all ages around Bali.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
There are so many – Solemen’s successes are legendary! All thanks to cleverly crafted projects and programmes. For starters, I’m proud Solemen ended pasung for 52 people by freeing them from incarceration in cages, or being chained up. (Pasung describes the seclusion and restraint of people with mental illness). Solemen also managed to rehabilitate all those released and reintegrate them back into their local community. Our next challenge is to finally end pasung in Bali.
I’m proud we have built our Outreach programmes; our mobile SoleFamily outreach team is now a rapid-response team deployed all over Bali to care for the many cases of sick, poor and destitute people who need immediate intervention and care, but lack the financial means to seek medical assistance. Our team is non-stop on the road to help bring hope and solutions.
This tireless work is to combat the scourge of malnutrition and extreme poverty, as well as the endemic, untreated and far-advanced diseases or unassisted disabilities that result in people being locked up or chained like animals, suffering from undiagnosed mental illness. We also assist people with absolutely no access to medical care or who live in acute poverty and destitution – all these conditions are daily fare for the team.
The work is huge and relentless, but our SoleFamily outreach team focuses their efforts on finding and helping so many people hidden in Bali’s remote and difficult-to-reach areas where access to healthcare is poor or non-existent. In spite of often a very slim shoestring budget and a lack of sustainable funding, the team has always been very adept at targeting help where it will have the biggest impact.
I’m also proud to have created friendships across the island that allow me to share Solemen, and now, the SoleFamily journey. Solemen’s reputation has grown as one of the most respected and reputable health NGOs in Bali, which includes our successful Outreach programmes, medical intervention, food aid, education to benefit the sick, the poor, the disabled, and the marginalised in Bali. I am proud that our overheads are pro rata among the lowest in Bali, probably helped by the fact that both Sarah Chapman and I have never taken a salary over the last 11 years.
I am especially proud that 2023 is the 11th anniversary of the outreach programme, ‘Changing Lives in Bali’.
All of these accomplishments would not be possible without the incredible support from our loyal donors and supporters. A special mention goes out to Finns Bali, without whom we could not have accomplished what we have.
What impact have you made in Bali?
To date, we have helped over 3,000 patients with their families. We have provided freedom for 54 people in pasung with mental health issues. Our Heart Children initiatives have helped set children up for surgeries not available in Bali, while our Finns Care & Recovery Centre makes it possible for people to stay in a safe, comfortable and convenient environment before, during and immediately after undergoing treatments at local hospitals. Solemen’s mental health programme has also been phenomenally successful, while our food distribution programme keeps malnourishment and hunger at bay for the destitute poor. We’ve given hope and faith to so many families who were lost and had all but given up hope for help.
What does the future look like for you?
I am very excited about the future of our newly rebranded SoleFamily Bali continuing to expand and improve our service building and solidifying the roots we built as Solemen. I look forward to one day spending time with my children, grandson and more time with my wife whilst continuing to secure more sustainable funding.
We’ve recently appointed a new multi skilled and experienced Board with a new President, respected lawyer Yuli (Tommy) Utomo, who along with the Board members has already started to guide us to greater things.
What do you love most about Bali?
The lovable people and all the smiles, the honour to help those most in need, and the privilege to live in one of the safest and most enjoyable places in the world, where there’s so much to experience and so many opportunities.
Any advice for those wanting to make a meaningful change?
In the words of Goethe “whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” And, as Sir Winston Churchill famously said: “Never, never, never give up”. Listen to your heart and be sure to surround yourself with positive people.
Who is your Local Legend and why?
Without any question or any doubt my hero is Sarah Chapman, co-founder and leader of SoleFamily’s passionate outreach team – she is the face that so many of our Solebuddies look forward to seeing. Sarah brings hope and joy to everyone she meets and knows every story of every Solebuddy by heart. ‘Angel’ Sarah Chapman is, in my opinion, the nearest person encompassing all the very best aspects of Mother Theresa and Florence Nightingale rolled into one. Sarah is not only a highly experienced nurse, but a born leader and outstanding and tireless creative role model for compassion in every sense.
I have always been deeply humbled and honoured to work alongside Sarah and have the most enormous respect for her ability, her ethics and her character. Quite frankly, one could not possibly hope for a better friend, work partner and ally. I will always have the very deepest respect for Sarah and thank her from the bottom of my heart for being the person to create and lead our outreach programmes and co-run SoleFamily with me, our amazing health NGO.