Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

Australian family and friends build community hall in Laos

Geoff Rhodes has visited his daughter-in-law Lea’s family in Laos multiple times over the past six years. If it’s not Geoff, another member of the Rhodes family will make the annual trip from Sydney to Pakse in southern Laos to visit Lea’s relations.

The two families have shared a special bond since 2013, when a terrible plane crash in Laos killed all 49 passengers on board, including Geoff’s son Gavin and wife Lea, and their two children Jade, 3, and Manfred, 17 months.

“We wanted to maintain the relationship with Lea’s family, and they are equally keen to maintain it,” Geoff says. “They are a wonderful family.

“All my grandchildren have been to Laos at least once. They can’t speak Lao and the children over there can’t speak English but they get along.”

The last time Geoff visited Laos was in February 2019. He was greeted with a mighty embrace and joyous bellow from Lea’s elder brother at the airport.

“He screamed at the top of his voice ‘Geoff!’, ran across to me, picked me up and threw me four feet in the air,” Geoff says.

The pair had met many times before, but this was the first time Geoff had, literally, been swept off his feet.

The exuberant welcome was the start of a week-long trip where Geoff and three friends – Peter, Monica and John – (pictured above) were special guests at the opening of a community hall that the Rhodes family helped to build in a ChildFund-supported community in the country’s north.

Geoff officially opening the meeting hall in the village in Nonghet.

The community hall was completed in 2018, and built in honour of Gavin and Lea and their children.

During the past 12 months, the Rhodes family have been rallying friends and colleagues to raise money to build the hall, which provides a central gathering place for local children and families. They took part in events such as the City2Surf in Sydney as part of their fundraising efforts.

The hall is now the home of the village youth group, a meeting spot for community leaders, and a venue for teacher training, sanitation and hygiene education and other awareness-raising initiatives.

Geoff with Lea’s uncle Keovisith Voralath outside the community hall.

For the Rhodes family fundraising for ChildFund has been a healing experience, allowing them to channel their grief into something positive.

The hall is the second project the Rhodes family have supported in this village through ChildFund. In 2015 they built a preschool – the first of its kind in the community to provide early education to children – also in honour of Gavin and his family.

Geoff says the success of their fundraising efforts for ChildFund has been because their supporters have been able to see tangible results.

“The most important thing for them is that they know that if they donate money to a Rhodes fundraiser they see a concrete result,” he says. “The money doesn’t disappear into an enormous pit where no one knows where the money has gone.”

And for Geoff and his family, despite the terrible circumstances, they now have a lifelong connection to Laos, with further plans to support children and families in the country already in discussion.

“We can’t support the world, but we can help give one village a boost,” Geoff says.

Geoff (in green), with his friends Peter, Monica and John, receiving locally made gifts at the opening ceremony for the meeting hall.

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