The land of clear blue skies, balmy beaches, gracious hosts and an alluring lifestyle that is Bali attracts many people from around the world who often come to seek shelter from their stressful lives. Yet, there is a far less glamorous side to life in this paradise which the visitors seldom notice. Behind the tranquil surroundings, in remote and well-hidden parts of the island, there are people living below the poverty line, under substandard conditions, suffering from malnutrition, untreated medical conditions and a shocking lack of access to medical care and treatment.
Solemen - How It All Began
“I came here to retire. I never thought for one second, I would end up working as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life doing this. Once Sarah and I came across little Ani, a malnourished 8 years old child, weighing only 6 kilos, and dying and we started our involvement with her, it’s been a rollercoaster. It’s just been like a ball gathering moss down the hill, taking over Sarah’s and my entire life.” - Robert Epstone, from one of the People of Asia’s interviews.
In 2009 British entrepreneur and philanthropist Robert Epstone and his wife retired and moved to Bali. After settling down in their very own corner of paradise in Seminyak and sampling the various delights of retired life in Bali, Robert began to see firsthand that life could be challenging for the many disadvantaged people he encountered here in Bali. Robert wanted to help them and came up with a quirky way to raise funds for the underprivileged by pledging to go barefoot until Yayasan Solemen Indonesia could raise 1 million dollars.
He created the Solemen '535km Barefoot Walks around Bali' campaign and invited people to walk with him to draw awareness to the plight of the disadvantaged. Every four days on these walks they held health presentations and checks with a doctor and two nurses at villages that had never seen a doctor.
When Robert met Sarah Chapman it was a life-defining encounter for them both. Sarah is a British nurse who retired after a 28-year long professional nursing career in Britain. At that time, Sarah was spending three days a week riding on the back of a motorbike, caring for an abused and malnourished child from a remote area of Karangasem called Ani, who weighed only 6 kilos at 8 years old. Robert and Sarah did their best to attend to Ani's health and managed to give her a most wonderful two months before she sadly died despite their efforts to save her.
The tale of Ani that inspired Robert and Sarah
“As Sarah said, once you see somebody who is in great need of help, you can't just run away.” - Robert Epstone.
Ani’s plight sparked Sarah and Robert's determination to help more people in need. They realized there must be a lot of other children like Ani, neglected and abandoned without proper care, and vowed they would do what they could so there would be no more children left untreated and left behind.
Encouraged by the cause, Sarah and Robert quickly teamed up and formed a roving, fast-acting Outreach Team, which gradually expanded over the next ten years to include volunteer doctors, nurses, therapists, and caregivers. Despite very often operating on a shoestring budget, the Solemen team is on the road daily to the remote areas of Bali to care for people with untreated diseases and disabilities, and living in extreme poverty and destitution.
Solemen’s mandate grew to include patients with psychosocial disabilities. Mental health patients are hard to identify on the island, as the culture dictates that disability, misery, and other 'negative representations' should be hidden away from the outside world. The neighbourhood society in remote areas tends to look the other way for these kinds of cases, though these people may be the most in need of proper care.
“ I’ve often thought about what sort of effect it really has on someone when seeing very distressing situations. Is one desensitized, or how do you take that on board? Do you just put it out of your mind or is it sitting there somewhere, eating away? Or whatever it is. I don't know.” - Robert Epstone
The Solemen team responds to referrals and finds hidden poverty and untreated medical conditions rampant in all areas of Bali, among children and adults alike. 86% of Solebuddies (affectionate term for the people under Solemen's care) are children, while the rest are adults. They encounter severe malnutrition, untreated critical health issues, mentally ill patients who are locked up or chained like animals, people with far advanced illnesses, with absolutely no access to medical care or who are living in acute poverty.
Because of these experiences, the Solemen organization has found its true direction: helping the hidden disadvantaged in Bali. Their focus is on searching out those who are not attended by the existing network of charitable organizations and government programs.
The Solemen Outreach Team is regularly targeting difficult areas or where access to health care is inadequate or non-existent. Their fundraising efforts are all geared towards providing the funds to help pay for medical assessments, treatments, and interventions.
“Gratitude is absolutely a key thing. It made me very grateful as well when you see this sort of thing. It upsets me sometimes, that there are people who have enormous wealth who do absolutely nothing.
I once asked someone in a hotel if they may like to join us at a charity event saying it would be a lot of fun.
He said, "I’m sorry, I don’t give to charity". It stopped me in my tracks. But you know, one has to be tolerant. He’s entitled to that. I'm not happy about it, but people are different and one shouldn’t judge.”
- Robert Epstone
Robert Epstone declared his intention to be barefoot "in solidarity with all those who don't have a choice to wear or not wear shoes" until Solemen had raised USD 1 million. Having reached this goal four years ago, Robert continued going barefoot as it had become his trademark raising awareness of the plight of destitute people in Bali. Fate, however, had other ideas and due to health reasons, Robert was forced to hang up his naked soles. Nevertheless, the mission of caring for the forgotten poor, destitute and ill people continues unabated.
Faced with a nationwide scarcity in health supplies because of the COVID-19, less fortunate communities stand vulnerable to calamity. To avoid that, the Solemen team has successfully developed hand sanitisers to maintain the hygiene of their surroundings and to help the marginalised in Bali to provide these basic necessities.
For the next 30 days, we invite you to sponsor their social enterprise as a way of creating sustainability for Solemen's contribution to society, by visiting our social marketplace: https://socialmarketplace.thepeopleofasia.com/donation/detail/ff0b8381-44ad-4ef8-863a-96fc3220ac24.