Adrianne Dartnall is 64, looks 50, laughs like a 20-year old, and works like a person who is driven by an inspirational mission.
She and her partner, Rick Lennert, are equally at home speaking to 400 people at a fundraising gala as trekking through rural villages in Myanmar and Cambodia, where, for the past 15 years, they’ve worked to bring water, education and health care to people who live in abject poverty.
Adrianne’s face lights up when she speaks of this work. “We see people who’ve lost many loved ones, people who have nothing but the barest essentials and yet are able to feel joy and gratitude for each moment.”
Rick agrees. “The courage and compassion of these people is inspiring.”
This is a couple whose lives have been transformed by tragedy. Fifteen years ago, Adianne’s only child, a beautiful 21-year-old university student, was killed by a drunk driver. Not surprisingly, she and Rick, Danielle’s long-time stepfather, were devastated. But through their volunteer work, they have rallied.
“At first, our lives were shattered,” says Adrianne, “and we instinctively knew we could not easily piece them together. However, we recognized that we must travel on the current of our loss and not try to control where it would lead us.”
Together, they spoke about the possibility of going somewhere new. Backpacking in foreign lands, they thought, may help them find a place of acceptance. They quit their jobs, sold many of their possessions, cashed in their savings, and went abroad.
Initially, these travels seemed pointless. Exploring the white sands and blue waters of Greek beaches, the exotic streets of Barcelona, and picturesque Irish villages didn’t lessen their grief and despair. However, when a chance conversation took them to one of Mother Theresa’s Ashrams for the homeless in India, things changed. There, working alongside hundreds of poverty-stricken men, women and children, sleeping on concrete floors, harvesting hay to feed the living, and digging graves to bury the dead, they found a new meaning to their lives.
“We realized many people are able to find joy and purpose,” Rick says, “even after experiencing the most dreadful losses and coping with appalling living situations.”
After spending time in Myanmar and Cambodia, the couple returned to Canada determined to set up a non-profit charitable society whose mission was to create better futures for children living in developing countries.”
“We wanted to do this because we were so moved by the gentle spirit and humble acceptance we saw in the people of Cambodia,” says Adrianne. “The courage they displayed in facing almost overwhelming obstacles was extraordinary.”
The new organization, KIDS International Development Society, has attracted a diverse and devoted board of directors, as well as a growing group of enthusiastic supporters. Since then, Adrianne and Rick have spent three to four months each year in Cambodia, working voluntarily to provide people in remote areas with health care, education and clean drinking water.
“People in Cambodia live in extreme hardship,” says Rick. “When we say they have no money, we don’t mean they’re poor. Many live on just $1 a day, struggling to feed their families.”
But the financial support from KIDS makes an enormous difference to these families. For example, $100 can buy lunches for 500 school children. A thousand dollars can build wells for five households.
After rebuilding a dilapidated floating school on Tonle Sap Lake – so it didn’t sink – Adrianne and Rick worked with local people to build a new school with solar panels. They also build solar-run water systems for schools, which provide clean drinking water for thousands of Cambodian children and their families, and provide light for the schools so they can offer evening classes.
A particularly exciting project has involved corralling an invasive plant species, the water hyacinth, to create floating gardens, so people can grow greatly needed vegetables. This involves stabilizing the water hyacinths with bamboo poles, using a machete to chop the plants, and composting this material, so seeds can be planted.
“What’s rewarding,” says Rick, “is finding that, by teaching children about this technology, they will then teach their parents.”
Adrianne concurs. “One little girl who came to the school and learned about this project went home and told her parents she wanted to grow things. She was so proud to show off the first plant she grew on the floating garden.”
It’s not always easy travel. Often they have to make their way by vans, boats and tuk tuks, often sleeping on cots during long, hot nights while beating away an array of large insects.
“We’ve had many interesting challenges,” says Adrianne. “After renovating and refurbishing a small, rundown, free clinic in northern Myanmar, we travelled down the Irrawaddy River on a large cargo ship. We got stuck on a sand bar for two days, ran out of food, travelled by rustic battered old boats, and crept along rickety rail bridges over cavernous ravines. We rarely slept and were ravaged by red ants. It took us over a week to go 700 kilometres!”
But although their working conditions are demanding, Adrianne and Rick are always inspired and strengthened by the positive spirits of the local people who live such difficult lives.
“And when we return to Canada,” says Rick, “we’re heartened by the generosity of people of all ages, including school children and university students, who are committed to help us in this work. It’s really a group effort.”
People who know the work KIDS does acknowledge the group effort, but emphasize that it is Adrianne and Rick who conceived the original vision and continue to lead the way in the work that is life-changing for so many children and families.
For more information or to get involved, visit www.kidsdevelopmentsociety.org
INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE MAY 2016
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