I first heard Pete speak at a conference in 2009. His story resonated so much that the following day I signed up to raise $10,000 for his charity, Hands Across the Water (Hands) and ride 800km through Thailand in eight days. Maybe it was the endorphins, maybe it was the incredible Thai scenery (think tiny villages, dense rubber plantations and dramatic cliffs) or maybe it was the bonds formed with strangers due to a common purpose – but I was hooked! I did another two rides with Hands and also spent two years working alongside Pete and the Hands’ Board. Getting to know Pete off stage, his leadership and commitment to his work became even more evident. I feel very lucky to have crossed paths with such an all-round excellent human. It was a pleasure reconnecting recently over breakfast, hearing about the exponential growth of Hands and some exciting new ventures. Thanks Pete for taking the time out to feature on this blog!
“When news of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami broke, my wife and I knew it was only a matter of time before I was deployed. What neither of us knew was that our lives would never be the same.
I was sent to Thailand with the New South Wales Police Force as the Australian Disaster Victim Identification Commander. I was there to identify the bodies of the mums, dads, children, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives that had lost their lives in the tsunami. The hardest days were the days that gave me clarity of purpose – sitting with a family member who was identifying a loved one.
Death wasn’t the issue. Working as a forensic investigator with the police force for 20 years in Bali, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia, I’d been surrounded by death for a long time. The struggle was how my work played out on my wife and three kids.
Being away for months at a time eventually took its toll, and my wife and I ended up separating after one of my rotations to Thailand. I spent some time living off $80 a fortnight, staying in a hostel and storing my clothes in the back of the police car. I was broken.
Yet, it was during this time that it made sense to help someone else.
In Thailand, I met 32 kids who had lost their families and their homes in the tsunami. They were living in a tent in Phang-Nga, one of the most impacted areas. They didn’t have anywhere else to go.
While I couldn’t change what had already happened to these kids, I realised I could do something about what happened next.
I wanted to build these kids a home, and as result, Hands Across the Water (Hands) was born. At around the same time, I started corporate keynote speaking engagements – delivering speeches about leadership challenges in the police force. As Hands got off the ground, I realised talking about my mission to build a home could be a means of raising funds. When I spoke about the 32 kids I had met, I started to get donations – and soon, our first home in Khao Lak was built.
The number of kids relying on Hands doubled over the next year as the true impact of the tsunami unfolded, and we built another house next to the first. We were determined to be there for them for the long term.
Hands has developed a lot over the years, and 2010 was an important year for us. It was the year I met Mae Thiew.
Mae Thiew ran Home Hug, in the rural area of Yasothon, supporting kids who have HIV or had lost their parents to the virus. Lacking the necessary funding for medication, Mae Thiew buried over 1,000 children during a thirty year period.
When we first met, Mae Thiew was distrustful, but Hands committed to supporting Home Hug for the long term and we haven’t lost a single child to HIV since.
Mae Thiew and I have come a long way and experienced a lot together. She has become one of the most important people in my life and I can’t begin to describe how much I’ve learnt from her.
Mae Thiew was diagnosed with terminal cancer 12 years ago and her health has recently taken a turn for the worse. She came to Sydney for International Women’s Day this year and told me she probably wouldn’t be here in 12 months but can now die happy knowing that I have committed to taking care of those children. The trust we share is something you experience only once in a lifetime.
Hands now has seven projects supporting 320 kids – and there’s no question that our programs also have a big impact on the surrounding community. In Khao Lak, we run a Community Centre and Tsunami Refuge and at Home Hug we have an outreach program for kids in the community with HIV who are able to stay with their families.
But this growth as an organisation doesn’t come down to being deserving, it comes from creating meaningful, shared experiences.
An example is the bike rides we hold in Thailand each year. Participants raise $10,000 (as well as paying for their expenses) and ride 800km over eight days. 70% of riders are repeat riders. Even Mae Thiew rode with us year on year, until her cancer took hold recently, sadly ending her riding days.
They don’t come back just because of the work we are doing on the ground, or because they’re inspired by our story. They come back because of what it does for them. We’re feeding their soul through a meaningful experience.
And it’s the same for businesses.
If I’m talking to a business, I don’t want to talk about the size of their donation, I want to talk about building an engagement strategy or leadership program for their team (which happens to involve some fundraising).
I once rejected a $20,000 cheque from a CEO and instead, asked him to offer five of his staff a place on our bike ride. That original $20,000 transformed into $180,000 within a year and an ongoing partnership. We now have a number of organisations running their own rides every year. It’s an offering that sets them apart.
If we can provide some sort of return on a business level and on a personal level, people will stay with us and I think this is key to our success.
Bike rides aren’t the only experience we offer. I just finished a Social Ventures Program with 20 salespeople from a large pharmaceutical company. Instead of their usual junket to Bora Bora or the Maldives, they wanted to do something meaningful. We worked in the slums of Khlong Toey, preparing for the locals to construct a house for the elderly. That group have now signed up to do this program for the next two years.
I love what I do, but it’s not always fun. In January this year, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I really didn’t want to do two back to back rides through Thailand. But, it ended up being one of the best rides I’ve done and having a profound impact on me. There was nothing different about the ride – it was the congruence of the group of people.
It reminded me why I do what I do. Creating these meaningful shared experiences is food for my soul.
Another key differentiator for Hands is that our structure allows every donor dollar to go to our programs in Thailand. We have a social enterprise, the Hands Group which undertakes commercial activities such as our sewing room at Baarn Tharn Namchai which employs community members to make merchandise or the agricultural projects underwriting 50% of the operating costs at our New Life Project in Chumpon. We also have a gala and conference series.
Ensuring the Hands Group is a commercial success will be my focus for the next 12-18 months. The next major project will then be another social enterprise consisting of a vocational learning centre, a functioning hotel and a conference centre. It will be the missing link for the kids and community members.
But the number of programs and kids we have isn’t a measure of our success. We measure success on the choices the kids have when it comes time to leave our programs.
Mook, who lost her entire family in the tsunami has completed a business marketing degree and is now living in Balmain, Sydney, working as a designer at a media agency. After completing his law degree, Game is now working as the General Manager of our programs in Thailand and pursuing his Masters of Business Administration on weekends.
Mook, Game and the other 47 kids Hands has at university will have vastly different choices than they would have had without Hands‘ support. And these choices will have a flow-on effect for their communities and the families they may choose to have one day. To me, that’s success.”