Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 05/22/2009 11:30 AM | People
Once, Keliek J. Soegiarto promised himself he would never ignore the poor when he became a rich man.
The district governor of Rotary International 3400 Indonesia never became a very rich man, but he does still remember the poor, even until now.
Born third of five children to a poor family in Yogyakarta on June 2, the 57-year-old is no stranger to poverty. His oldest brother died when his mother returned from hospital after giving birth to him, while his younger sister died when he was about a year old.
“I don’t know why they died. I was too young at that time, but I knew my family was very poor,” Keliek told The Jakarta Post.
He recalled that when his family had no money, they would only eat coagulated lumps of rice with salt. If they had a little money, they usually bought tauco – salty yellow bean relish that they used for dip.
“It was way better than salt,” he said.
His father was a gofer at a Dutch-owned company called Java Stall, which later became a government-owned company.
“My father told me that when he got married, he borrowed a pair of shoes from his brother in Yogyakarta and a jacket from his brother in Jakarta. Even for his wedding he had to borrow clothes.”
The family of seven lived in a small garage in a big house in Yogyakarta’s elite neighborhood of Kota Baru. Ironically, the house, he recalled as “a house with many big rooms with only two people living in it” was owned by his uncle, a very successful man working for a Dutch company.
“Any room in the house would have been warm enough for us, but I don’t know why we were treated like that,” he said.
Experience became Keliek’s best teacher.
“I vowed that when I became rich, I wouldn’t be like that,” he said.
They stayed in the garage for a few years, until his father’s friend rented them an abandoned house. But the 6-year-old Keliek still had to live away from his family, moving around from one place to another – even at his father’s office – to ease the family burden, although along the way he suffered much abuse from people who made him work for them.
Keliek returned home when the family was better off and Keliek’s father enjoyed better work.
“My father is an honest and hardworking man. Starting out as a gofer at the office, he later became the director of the company, even though he never finished elementary school.” Keliek never waited until he was rich to keep his promise to help others.
“I had a lot of friends who were much poorer than me. I helped them. My clothes are their clothes, my meals are their meals,” he said.
After graduating from his English studies at Sanata Darma University – which he picked because the tuition fees were lower than at Gadjah Mada or Parahyangan universities, where he had been accepted to study psychology and civil engineering respectively – he moved to Bandung in 1976 to become an English teacher.
One year later he married Yulistiyani Nurcahyana. The couple built their careers as teachers in many places, from kindergartens to universities, including Parahyangan and Maranatha Christian Universities. They also gave private English lessons.
But money did not make the couple happy. In 1982, they started searching for ways to do good
Their life took a twist when Keliek parents wanted them to return to Yogyakarta in 1984 to take over the family’s bakery.
It was a hard decision as they had settled in Bandung. Moreover, Keliek was a civil servant assigned at Maranatha. Moving to Yogyakarta would cause him to be suspended.
Only after got permission from the government to not void his civil servant status did Keliek bring his wife and their 3-year-old son to his hometown in 1985.
In Yogyakarta, he became a lecturer at his alma mater Sanata Darma, while continuing the business his parents had started. His wife gave up her career as a teacher and founded her own elementary schools and playgroups.
Back in Yogyakarta, with no friends or colleagues, the couple joined the Rotary to be able to help others.
“I found something I had been looking for for years: Doing good for others. I found a university of life.
I saw rich and successful people who didn’t treat poor people like people treated me before,” said the man elected to lead the 1,700-member Rotary International District 3400 since July last year.
“Rich people don’t have to be bad people, they can do good for others,” he said.
“I’ve been with the Rotary for 23 years now and it never crossed my mind that I would quit. This is the place where I can do good for others with no ulterior motive.”