Imagine selling up everything, packing up your four children and moving to a remote island in Indonesia to help the locals there lead better lives.
It’s a brave family that undertakes a challenge that mighty, but it’s exactly what Helensburgh family the Thistlewaites have done.
Fire fighter Matt Thistlewaite and his wife Natalie were regular visitors to Indonesia, and particularly the island of Rote in west Timor, where they were touched by the locals standard of living.
Rote is becoming a popular destination for surfers, and while a tourism boom is bringing money onto the island, the locals still live in poverty.
“After many trips, I noticed that not all of the effects of tourism were positive,” he says. “East Indonesia has the highest malnutrition and infant mortality rates in the country.”
So the Thistlewaites started thinking. They spent 10 years mulling over the idea, before deciding something had to be done to help lift the locals out of poverty. “We certainly didn’t click our fingers and decide,” he laughs. “We had to build up the courage.
“There are corporations setting up resorts on the island but they’re not giving back to the locals. We decided to build a resort called Mercy Huts, and give it to the people who live there. They can run it and they can benefit from the profits., with 100% going back to the local community. It’s been set up so the local orphanage will also share in the money raised.”
So, with four children aged between six and 15, the family sacrificed their dream of owning a home and set off for Rote.
“It was not a decision we took lightly,” says Matt, “because the impact of this would be felt by our whole family forever. But as Nat says, it was on our hearts to do something so we made a commitment to do whatever it takes to see Mercy Huts succeed.”
The family leased land on the island and spent 8 months getting to know the people, understanding their needs and building up trust. Initially they slept on the ground under a tarp, with no power or running water. Three years into their adventure, they have a roof over their heads, a flushing toilet and a kitchen! It’s no mean feat considering first they have to raise all the money for the building materials, which then have to be shipped via ferry from the mainland.
The family now splits the year between Australia and Indonesia, while Matt returns to work and the kids go back to traditional schooling.
“It’s been challenging, stressful and rewarding,” says Matt. “We have to raise the money for building materials, so it can be slow going.
“But the hardest thing has been the kids keeping contact with their friends. They miss out on the regular contact and all the things that happen while we are away. It’s not a ‘normal’ life and I feel guilty for that sometimes, but they really like it in Rote. They all speak the language so they have a feet in both camps.
“Nat’s main job is to home-school the children, but she is also teaching the locals what Westerners expect in terms of food and hygiene, so they’ll be trained-up and ready to go when the resort is finished.
“We estimate there will be between 10 and 15 jobs to run the resort. Also Nat is a scuba dive instructor so she’ll be training local Dive Masters, to add another dimension to the resort.”
While there is no exact opening date, Matt says they hope to start taking bookings later this year. “It all depends on fundraising,” he says. “But when it opens, we know it will be successful. The island is extremely beautiful and in recent years there’s been a massive influx of tourists. The white sand beaches are lined with coconut trees, the surfing is great, there are many unexplored diving spots, and the fishing is fantastic. Hopefully Mercy Huts will help the local people generate the income stream they need to live safely and with dignity, without a third party exploiting their home.”
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