by MICHELE STERNBERG
Buderim green thumb Chris O’Dempsey has somewhat of a celebrity status in Vietnam, yet is virtually unknown back home in Australia.
The former paramedic and pastor helps young children in Vietnam get an education, sets up medical clinics, provides medical training for doctors and has sent an ambulance boat to the Mekong Delta to reach people in isolated rural villages.
In fact, Chris has helped thousands directly and indirectly over the past 32 years.
Many in the impoverished nation know him and in 2019 the Vietnam Government presented him with the Memorial Medal in recognition of his humanitarian aid service, making him the first non-Vietnamese person to be awarded the honour.
Chris first set up Project Vietnam and then Heart Reach Australia, which provides programs, medical facilities, education and assistance for Vietnamese people living in sub-standard conditions due to poverty.
The avid gardener opens his award-winning 1000-square-metre Buderim property filled with orchids to the public every year as a major fundraiser. This year they raised $5000 through entry fees, cafe takings and the sale of orchids.
Chris says that being a small charity, they could ensure 100 per cent of the money raised goes to people in need.
“As a voluntary organisation, no administration or running costs are taken from donations,” he says.
“People respond tremendously because they can see our track record.
“I just get sad when I see the millions and millions of dollars that major charities get given and how little hits the ground.”
Heart Reach Australia also helps young children get an education through the Peter Brock Memorial Child Sponsorship Program, in honour of his old school mate who was a big supporter from the start.
“Project Vietnam was where I started and then in 2000 I felt the need to just focus more on the urgency of getting medical equipment and medical expertise into doctors and hospitals and clinics,” Chris says.
“And so on the back of that I rang Peter Brock, who is an old schoolmate of mine, and said ‘Brocky, I’m pulling the pin on Project Vietnam and starting Heart Reach Australia’ and he said ‘I’m with you mate’.
“So we started to focus on setting up programs that could take in donated hospital equipment, bringing young eye doctors out to Australia – to the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane – for training so that we could lift the standard of eye surgery, getting equipment for them, using them to do clinics with poor people down the Mekong Delta.
“All these sorts of things were to try and have a direct impact on lifting the level of health and hygiene and expertise in Vietnam, and that had a huge success.”
Over the years the child scholarship program has also had many success stories, including a young girl named Mai who has, with the help of the charity and a full scholarship, finished high school and graduated from RMIT.
“We’ve got more kids in uni now than we’ve ever had in our program before,” Chris says.
The global coronavirus pandemic has made his job harder, but not impossible. Chris has received donations of medical equipment that are still at his house, waiting for the time when he can take them overseas.
In the meantime, he stays in touch with his volunteers on the ground with donated mobile phones and has sent some care packages that have arrived safely.
“During these Covid times, the mobile phones have been a lifeline,” Chris says.
“I’ve got kids in the centre of Vietnam and the Mekong who I am now able to communicate directly with because we had the vision to get mobile phones, but I could use another 20 to take on the next trip.”
He says Covid has created an urgent need for basic food as well as medical supplies in Vietnam. He’d heard that vaccinations were starting to be rolled out but the virus was rampant and he was worried because he knew so many had little or no access to medical treatment.
His first priority was to get the ambulance boat repaired because he’s been told it had stopped working.
His second was to encourage more people to donate or sponsor a child.
“Covid has impacted our giving,” he says. “We’ve lost a couple of sponsors because they couldn’t afford to sponsor kids any more, even though it’s only 40 bucks a month Australian.
“I’ve got so many kids that we can’t help because we don’t have sponsors.”
His third priority is simply to raise awareness to keep the donations coming and bring his plans to fruition.
One goal is to reduce the road toll in Vietnam, which is so high due to the number of motorbikes on the roads.
“My goal is to get a first-aid kit, just a basic first-aid kit, that goes under the seat of a motorbike for all senior high school students, because it’s one thing to give them first-aid training but they need the equipment,” he says.
Chris and his wife Angel celebrated 23 years of marriage this month and, while he says it can sometimes be hard to push on, constantly begging for money and donations, he only has to look back at the achievements of Heart Reach Australia to know it was worth it.
How can you help? If you have an old mobile phone to donate or want to sponsor a child, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to heartreachaustralia.com.