Mike Hilliard: Working for the empowerment of poor children

Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Mike Stanton Hilliard, 62, was keeping an eye on children at the Mama Sayang orphanage when The Jakarta Post arrived for an interview one afternoon.

They were shoveling sand into plastic bags and carrying them inside for minor construction work on the house. The children were five to 17 years old.

""We started this orphanage seven years ago. We came at the request of some churches to help with drug problems, and without the specific backing of any churches or organizations. We came at our own cost,"" Mike, a Christian clergyman, told the Post.

After helping with drug problems for a year, his Indonesian wife of 32 years, Jeveline Lengkong (Jev), felt it would be a good idea to open an orphanage.

They bought a house across the road and started the orphanage with 15 children they had met during a trip to remote villages in Kalimantan.

Today, the orphanage is home to 115 children from a variety of places including Poso (Central Sulawesi), Kendari (Southeast Sulawesi), Ambon (Maluku) and Jakarta.

The couple decided to open an orphanage after they realized that so many children in the country did not go to school. The children are extremely poor.

Not only did Mike and Jev take children that had no parents but also children from very poor families to put them through school.

The couple did not choose which children they would take to the orphanage. Instead, it was the children or their custodians who entrusted Mike and Jev to take care of them.

""All we wish is to give the children an opportunity and hope -- that's all we want. By 'opportunity', what I mean is to put them in school and enable them to get qualifications. They can then help themselves and their country,"" said Mike who has three children from his marriage to Jev.

It seems that Mike and Jev's effort have started to bear fruit. One of the girls at the orphanage is now studying business management at President University in Jakarta.

In addition, some boys from the orphanage have got jobs in oil companies.

"" Our plan is that after qualifying at school or tertiary education the children will return to Kalimantan or wherever they came from and will pass their knowledge on to others,"" he said.

Mike recalled that he and his wife found the 15 children during their trip to Kalimantan. They saw real poverty there. Some of the villages, Mike said, were six hours from the nearest road and had nothing.

Mike said that street kids in Jakarta can just hold out their hands and beg for money. ""But when you live six hours from the nearest road, nobody comes,"" he added.

Of the 15, some were orphans. Some had a parent or another relative.

Mike and Jeve had permission from the children's families to raise the children and empower them to make a success of their lives.

The children, Mike said, were so naive when they first arrived at the orphanage. They did not know anything. They had never even seen a faucet. ""The children broke five of them because they kept turning them on and off,"" Mike said.

At school, however, the children easily caught up with other students. Because they had nothing inside their heads, their brains were like sponges, easily absorbing information.

Unfounded suspicion

Before coming to Indonesia, Mike and his wife lived in Scotland for years. At that time, Mike worked with drug addicts in his hometown Glasgow.

They felt they could do something similar in a different country. So they came to Indonesia, Jev's birthplace.

Initially, it was not an easy thing to start an orphanage for a foreigner like Mike. People here had suspicions about his motives.

An Indonesian magazine known for its radical Islamic views even accused him of coming to Indonesia to convert Muslim children to Christianity.

The magazine profiled Mike, negatively. It accused him of coming here to convert Muslims to Christianity. They accused him of having Muslim children in his orphanage.

""They accused me of many things that were untrue,"" he said.

Mike said nobody from the magazine spoke to him before publication. Nobody interviewed him. Nobody asked what he was doing here. However, they had his photograph in their magazine.

""After Jev and I read the magazine, we were shocked. I was disappointed that no one from the magazine would speak to me, face to face, or even telephone me. I don't know where they got their information from; it was all rubbish,"" Mike said.

About a year later, the magazine sent a reporter to get a proper interview with Mike. However, the magazine did not publish the story.

""We don't have any Muslim children here. I would like to. But because I know it would cause so many problems with people around here. I take only Christian children or those that I know are from a Christian background,"" said Mike, who as a priest often preached at different churches.

The most fascinating experience, Mike said, was when he delivered a sermon at a Mandarin-speaking church. Mike spoke in English, his wife in Bahasa Indonesia, and another woman translated it into Mandarin.

""It was a fascinating experience,"" he said.

Asked about his challenges, Mike said he faces two, at least. The first is to raise those in his care as good citizens.

""The second, because I am a priest, is that I want to improve Muslim-Christian relations wherever I go,"" he said.

He said he utilizes whatever skill he can draw upon to do that. In this country, Mike said, interfaith dialog between Muslims and Christians is very important.

""If there is no dialog but only suspicion that turns to hatred, this country will never grow,"" he said.

Apart from running the Mama Sayang orphanage, Mike and Jev will soon build a health clinic under the auspices of the Talitha Cumi foundation they have founded.

They also plan to build a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and a care center for the elderly.

In his spare time, Mike indulges in something he did not do for years: painting.

""I have been interested in modern art. After 40 years not painting, I decide to paint in the hope I could raise some funds for the orphanage.""

""My style is a mix of impressionism and cubism with a focus on high and low relief. I see my work as a bridge between painting and sculpture. I'm trying, anyway,"" he said.

Source: The Jakarta Post