Alan Cockram finds that even a small gesture can take you down a path to the extraordinary, and correct the work/life balance.

For years I worked as a sole trader, operating my own business as a financial planner. I put in long hours and built a solid client base; and although I enjoyed the challenge and autonomy of working for myself, it was all-consuming.

By the time I reached my 50s, my children were young adults and my involvement with the church and Rotary club kept me busy, but not enough to distract me from the office.

In 1995 my wife Judi and I decided to sponsor a child. We chose to send our money to a seven-year-old girl living in Chennai, southern India. Her name is Asha.

There is nothing extraordinary about helping out an individual in need, but our decision to visit her sparked a rather remarkable journey.

We first met Asha when she and 60 other children appeared at the orphanage where we were staying, to sing us several welcome songs they had been rehearsing. I must admit, I wasn’t able to distinguish her face in the crowd at the time, but when she stepped forward I remember thinking how fragile she seemed, and so shy.

She immediately captured our hearts, as did the other children who were so eager to meet us and enjoy our company. These children from impoverished circumstances – some without parents, others simply unwanted, and many whose families couldn’t afford to keep them – were not poor in showing their love and appreciation.

On our return to Western Australia, Judi and I resolved to find a way to help other children in need in India, but not just through sponsorship.

We eventually joined with two other Christians through the Indian Village Care Ministry (IVCM) in Chennai – Don Williams, who used to be a builder in Broome, and David Turkin, who is a computer wiz and entrepreneur. By adding my skills as a financial planner, we had all the necessary components to start making a real difference.

Our first venture working together was an orphanage we now call Eagle Base in Andhra Pradesh, also in southern India. We built it in 2006 and it now houses 30 children, with provision for the care of 13 elderly people.

The children, most of whom are sponsored by generous Australians, receive three meals a day, tuition and medical care, provided by a doctor on site, who we employ to look after the children’s health needs and to service the wider rural community.

Since the construction of Eagle Base, we have leased a building for an orphanage in Chennai and built a third orphanage in Kadambur, which accommodates 58 boys. We have a fourth orphanage in the pipeline, due to be built some-time this year.

I see my contribution as an extension of what I do as a financial planner. I specialise in planning for retirement, investment, superannuation, wealth creation and general financial planning. What I do in India is plan for the future of these children, who will hopefully benefit and someday be self-sufficient and be able to contribute back to their community as skilled, educated adults.

We provide the leaders of the homes with financial advice, help them maintain a budget and step in to resolve money issues when necessary. We publish newsletters and actively encourage other Australians to participate in our projects.

Each year I make several trips to India, sometimes taking a small group of visitors, some of whom are sponsors of children. We stay at the orphanages and spend time with the kids, teaching them English and computing skills. It’s always an enjoyable experience.

My involvement with the orphanages has grown over the years, and increased to a point where I had to make a crucial decision about my work here; and so I eventually stopped operating as a sole practitioner and joined AMP financial planning firm KeyPath in Osborne Park in Perth.

I negotiated a four-day working week and took the fifth day for my charity work. My employer is very supportive of what I do.

I don’t believe it’s just financial planners who can help those in need, but my background has provided me with the ability to see large, challenging projects through to their completion. I take solace in the fact that the work we do in India is sustainable for the long term.

I think anyone who has something to give can benefit from donating their time or money to a cause of their interest. I will often advise clients that philanthropy is an important part of estate planning, as there are many benefits to be had.

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