A helping hand keeps business blood pumping

Volunteering to do the hard yards in some grim Third World situations has given three Australian corporate types a new lease of life, writes Larissa Ham.

Volunteering to do the hard yards in some grim Third World situations has given three Australian corporate types a new lease of life, writes Larissa Ham.

It's no exaggeration to say that Dr Paul Steinfort's passion for helping communities in need has nearly killed him - and may well yet. In a high-flying corporate career, the project manager has found great success masterminding projects such as the redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

But the energetic father of five has also found the time to help rebuild disaster-ravaged communities in Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

The 63-year-old estimates he has forgone $350,000 in potential earnings through volunteering - a passion that has at times threatened to derail his own business, PSA Project.

Steinfort, who had always wanted to volunteer, was completely sold after a life-changing three months in India in the early 1970s. He and wife Noela were the first foreign volunteers to work alongside Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta.

"Calcutta then was unbelievably poor. One of my jobs was picking up the dead or dying people in the street," he says. In the afternoon, they would visit leprosy sufferers and dispense basic treatment.

"People in Australia could not get their head around what we were doing," he says.

Even Mother Teresa struggled to comprehend it. "Everyone else was a religious person at this time and we weren't and she didn't really understand where we were coming from."

Steinfort was forced to leave Calcutta after a near-fatal bout of dysentery.

"We were living right in the slums and there was no filtered water or anything like that."

Having lived to tell the tale, Steinfort headed to post-cyclone Darwin. At just 26 he was managing the reconstruction or upgrade of 33 schools and three hospitals.

Meanwhile, Noela was giving birth to their eldest son in a Darwin hospital while its roof was being put back on.

But one of Steinfort's greatest achievements was working to rebuild Banda Aceh after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami - at the same time the MCG redevelopment was in full swing.

"That was extremely stretching but Skype and email and the web and transport - flying back and forwards - somehow I balanced that in the months and years to come but it wasn't easy."

Banda Aceh was in the middle of a brutal civil war, and understanding that some were actually thankful for the tsunami, because it brought peace, was just one of many difficult realities to process.

Patrick Arthur's passion for volunteering began later in life, inspired by a chance meeting with a pair of twin orphans at a Cambodian orphanage in 2005. Mistakenly thinking he might adopt them, the little boys clutched Arthur's legs.

"It was quite a moving experience for me so when I stopped full-time work and was just working three days a week, I thought, 'What am I going to do to fill in the time?"' he says.

Tired of corporate life, Arthur scaled back his hours four years ago, at the age of 61.

"I'd had enough of it; I didn't want to work full time until I was 65. I thought now's my chance to use the skills and experience I've acquired," he says.

"I could have kept working and bringing in the big dollars but at the end of the day I'm thinking, 'Do I really need a new car every three years, what's important in life?"'

Arthur quit his finance director job and now works part-time as a financial controller.

His biggest change was becoming involved with the Foundation of Developing Cambodian Communities, in Cambodia's poorest rural province, Prey Veng.

The NGO provides a safe home for one boy and 43 orphaned or "at risk" girls who would otherwise likely face a life of prostitution. It also runs a free learning centre for other disadvantaged children.

For the past 18 months, Arthur has chaired the board, and is one of seven pro bono directors. He visits Cambodia twice a year and spends many hours volunteering from home processing donations, preparing financial reports and mentoring staff.

Working for an NGO is very different to his former world, though many skills translate.

"In corporate life you're within a division which is part of this huge global conglomerate, you don't necessarily have a real attachment to the business," he says.

The rewards are also different: a highlight was seeing two of the foundation's girls recently finish high school and go to university. Another was seeing the change in three orphaned sisters after they moved to the foundation from a local rubbish tip.

"One of the girls, after she'd been there for a week-and-a-half was asked, 'What's it like?"' Arthur says. "She said, 'It's like I've closed my eyes and I opened them and I was in heaven."'

Dr Keith Carpenter is another corporate type using his talents to make inroads overseas.

After executive roles with the Commonwealth Bank and Westpac, Carpenter, 69, swapped five-star hotels for 13 assignments to date with the Australian Business Volunteers (ABV).

Much of his work has been in Cambodia, but he has also volunteered in Fiji, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

Carpenter, who runs a consulting business part-time, is fulfilling a lifelong dream.

"About 20 years ago someone at work told me about ABV," says Carpenter. "I signed up with them and for a long time I couldn't do anything. I was conservative, I suppose.

"I just kept my registration going on that and when I retired I started looking around."

His first pro bono role was as a privatisation adviser at the Foreign Trade Bank of Cambodia.

"I was looking at a bank that needed to be privatised. It was in a sense very much like working in Sydney, but in a completely different environment and where the data wasn't as good or available," he says.

Carpenter surprised himself by falling in love with Cambodia.

"It was fun to get out of bed in the morning and go and live in this completely different environment."

While he was still working in an office, the culture was very different, with virtually a generation of professionals wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. "These young people who are trying to do something, but there's no depth of experience behind them, no one they can go and ask, 'How do I do this?"'

All three say their voluntary work has been among the most, if not the most, rewarding of their careers.

Steinfort says volunteering has been "a passport into all sorts of worlds and all sorts of cultures".

"The volunteer side of it is the love and the passion. I think I'll die doing these things, whether that's in a year's time from wearing out or when I've hit 80."

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