Robert Epstone is a man who needs little introduction around Sanur or Bali for that matter. One of the founders of SoleFamily, a charity that provides health care for over 800 families in Bali, his work throughout Bali as an advocate for the most vulnerable and at risk, is legendary.
Robert arrived in Bali in 2009 after two decades in the international fashion industry, intending to enjoy his retirement in paradise. Once here, he realised that too many people in Bali were suffering and in need of acute medical care, and Robert couldn’t ignore it.
He first got involved overseeing a project to build 20 wells in East Sumba – life changing for the local population of over 2000 people. Not only do the wells provide clean drinking water, but the water could be used for fruit and vegetable irrigation, ensuring a stable food supply and source of income for the villages.
The next part of Robert Epstone’s journey is where SoleFamily first took off. Alongside a few friends, Robert vowed to go barefoot until he could raise one million dollars for his registered health NGO. He completed gruelling 535km barefoot walks, hosting health checks and workshops along the way to raise awareness for the cause. He then went on to complete barefoot walks through Singapore, Hong Kong, California and the UK, gaining international attention for the SoleFamily charity.
Since then, Robert Epstone has built a team of health professionals to drive the charity’s medical work forward. Key to this was Sarah Chapman, a retired nurse from the UK who was already volunteering her time and money to help chronically unwell children living in remote villages. This was the catalyst of the SoleFamily outreach program, bringing medical care and critical supplies to the most remote villages in Bali.
Robert Epstone & Sarah Chapman
That was ten years ago, and since then, SoleFamily have become a leader in the provision of health services to thousands of Bali’s most vulnerable.
SoleFamily’s outreach team is a rapid-response team, able to be immediately deployed to provide care and emergency medical assistance to the sick, poor and destitute all over Bali. This service is free, funded through generous donations and the fund-raising efforts of the SoleFamily team. To say it has saved thousands of lives is an understatement, as its contribution has been immeasurable to the poorest of villages in Bali.
Robert Epstone notes that the work the SoleFamily team has done to try to bring the practice of pasung to a permanent end in Bali, is amongst his proudest achievements. SoleFamily has freed and successfully rehabilitated 52 people from pasung – the practice of isolating and restraining people with a mental illness and other disability. Their work has helped to educate people about the mentally unwell and disabled, that they should never be chained up, and that with the right support they can be valuable and valued members of the community.
SoleFamily also works tirelessly to combat malnutrition and the disease it brings, by addressing extreme poverty and barriers to accessing good food and clean water. It’s a massive task, as so many people are hidden away in poverty in Bali’s most remote villages. But the SoleFamily team are determined to help in any way they can, and despite their tiny budget. In fact, neither Robert nor Sarah have taken one cent in salary from the charity over the ten years that they have been running it. Rather, every bit of money they raise goes towards helping the vulnerable, providing medical intervention, facilitating care, access to food, education, and secure housing.
The ‘Our Heart Children’ initiative run by SoleFamily helps children and their families to access vital surgery, not otherwise available in Bali. And the ‘Care & Recovery Centre makes it possible for families to stay together in a safe, comfortable environment while preparing for and recovering from the surgery. It’s hard to state how crucial this service has been for Bali families in desperate need of medical help, but without the means and support to access the right care.
Robert Epstone says that the networks that SoleFamily have created, supporting vulnerable, unwell, and mentally ill people have been a huge source of pride for him and the rest of the team.
And while he came to retire, the work that he does at SoleFamily has not only saved countless lives, but given him a sense of satisfaction, achievement and connection that he couldn’t have predicted when he first moved to Sanur. He truly is a local hero and incredible asset to the island of Bali and its people.
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