Charity of The Month: Heart Reach Australia

A quarter of a century supporting the less well-off in Vietnam


Chris O’Dempsey has been making it happen for some of Vietnam’s poorest for 25 years. During a trip with the Christian church in 1990, he was overwhelmed by the plight of those with no access to proper medical facilities, full education or employment. He’s visited Vietnam three times a year ever since, even married into the country. He recalls his initial visit to Dien Bien Phu eye hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. There he saw children as young as six months old suffering from preventable eye conditions like glaucoma and cataracts. On returning to Australia, he called the late great Fred Hollows, the famous eye surgeon who had been awarded funding from the Australian government. Fred told him to contact the heads of the major hospitals at home, so he did. Chris immediately formed Project Vietnam, the forerunner to Heart Reach Australia.


Originally focused on securing medical equipment, Chris started sending over supplies to donate to local hospitals. It was problematic and wasn’t always a success.


In response, Heart Reach has changed its focus. Among their many acitivities, now they sponsor local doctors to train in Australia, paying for them to earn their surgery stripes abroad, before plying their trade back home.


When he describes one of the earliest impacts of his work, he takes a moment to compose himself. Imagine a 20-year-old woman hit by a truck — run over and left for dead. It was only because of the donation of one of eight dialysis machines — the first had arrived in Saigon just two weeks earlier — that she was able to make a full recovery. Written off to die, the one word she knew in English, “Thank you,” still resonates with Chris today.


Long-term Relationships


When we meet at New World Saigon — the property has sponsored Heart Reach’s programmes since 2012 — he brings Mai with him, an 18-year-old teenager from the Mekong. She’s one of hundreds of beneficiaries of Heart Reach’s work today, where they encourage people to sponsor a child. Through this, Mai has been given the opportunity to reach for her academic and employment dreams. The day after our meeting, she will meet with RMIT in the hope of securing a much needed scholarship.


Heart Reach’s next mission is an ambulance boat for the area that Mai comes from — Ben Tre. Without emergency river transport and first aid in this section of the Mekong, too many people die before they even reach a hospital. An ambulance boat would change that says Chris, who has promised delivery by Dec. 1 this year.


It’s a promise he has no intention of breaking.


To see their work over the last 25 years and support Heart Reach’s current fundraising effort, go to

More in this category: « In Transition: The Hanoi Metro

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