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Music teacher's magnificent obsession -

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Music teacher's magnificent obsession

Reporter: Lisa Whitehead

KERRY O'BRIEN: When Karen Leonard went back-packing through Vietnam six years ago she had no idea
what a life-changing experience it would be, both for her and hundreds of poor Vietnamese. The
Melbourne music teacher was so moved by the poverty she encountered she persuaded her family to
chip in $400 to provide the basic necessities for one family. From that fairly humble beginning
Karen Leonard's determination to help others has grown into a magnificent obsession. Lisa Whitehead
reports.

LISA WHITEHEAD: Despite the winter chill outside, Karen Leonard is hoping her guests will warm to
the Christmas-in-July theme of her annual fundraising dinner. In the spirit of Christmas, the 300
people who braved the cold tonight will be asked to give generously to those less fortunate. All
the money raised will go to the Lifestart Foundation, a charity established by Karen Leonard four
years ago. It's making a difference to hundreds of lives in one of the poorest areas of Vietnam,
and it's transformed Karen Leonard's life.

KAREN LEONARD, LIFESTART FOUNDATION: Simply, I found what I want to be doing and that's crystal
clear. It's what I want to be doing with the rest of my life. So I think once you find that, the
energy just comes.

LISA WHITEHEAD: For years, Karen Leonard put her energies into teaching piano at her Melbourne
music school and raising her daughter Jade. But after a visit to Vietnam six years ago, her life
took a dramatic turn. Now she's much more than a mother and a music teacher. To many in Vietnam,
she's a miracle worker.

FATHER PETER HANSEN: I think that the initial reaction was one of, "Why would someone come so far
to do something for us as strangers?" but that reaction dissolved over time. As they came to see,
here was a person who was absolutely genuine. Here was a person who was absolutely committed.

LISA WHITEHEAD: For four months of each year, Karen Leonard works with the poor in the riverside
town of Hoi Ann in central Vietnam.

KAREN LEONARD: It's very beautiful. Many tailor shops, great restaurants - so that's the part of
Hoi Ann that a lot of people would be familiar with. However the part that I work on is over the
river and the people's lives there are certainly a lot different.

LISA WHITEHEAD: As a Western tourist, Karen Leonard was struck by the grinding poverty. Here TB and
polio are rife. People live in cramped conditions on board tiny river boats and young people work
on the streets selling trinkets to tourists.

KAREN LEONARD: I met a young boy who was selling postcards on the street, listened to his story of
his life and his family and then through him was introduced to the other children that were selling
on the street and their families. So that was sort of the start of things.

LISA WHITEHEAD: Tun is now 20 and often works as her translator in Hoi Ann. On her return to
Melbourne after meeting Tun, Karen Leonard raised $400 at a family Christmas get-together.

JADE LEONARD: It started as a little seed and has grown into this amazing garden of things, I
guess, and I don't think she had envisaged at all what it would turn into.

LISA WHITEHEAD: The Lifestart Foundation now sponsors 56 families in Quang Nam province.

KAREN LEONARD: If it was a rural family, we would set them up with livestock. We also pay for the
children's education for 12 months which takes pressure off the family. If they haven't got
transport, they'll probably get a bicycle.

LISA WHITEHEAD: Lifestart also pays for new fishing boats and nets for families who survive on
their catch.

KAREN LEONARD: We support most of the families that are living in tiny boats on the river. When I
say tiny they're about 1 metre wide, 3 or 4 metres in length. You can have perhaps 8 people living
on one of those boats.

LISA WHITEHEAD: The results of Karen Leonard's tireless voluntary work won over local government
officials. They helped Lifestart build 13 new concrete houses for homeless families and offered
Karen Leonard a building to house the free Lifestart school. The President of Melbourne-based
Vietnamese aid organisation Hands for Hope paid a visit to the school in Hoi Ann earlier this year.

CUONG TRAN, HANDS FOR HOPE: I was very, very surprised at how successful she was, considering she
is a foreigner, in a country where she doesn't speak the language and yeah, it's just phenomenal
that she started out having to overcome so many difficulties and now she has the support of even
the local governments.

LISA WHITEHEAD: Karen Leonard's friend and colleague Melbourne priest Father Peter Hansen has
strong ties to Vietnam. He also recently travelled to Hoi Ann.

FATHER PETER HANSEN: She is someone who is a friend and a confidante and the way that people,
particularly the children in her school, talk about her, give you a real understanding of just how
much she's loved and appreciated.

LISA WHITEHEAD: The annual cost of running the school will be paid out of the $18,000 raised at
this year's dinner dance. The money will also help fund medical treatment and a Jobstart program
for youth at risk.

JADE LEONARD: When people say, "How's your mum, what's she doing?" I say well actually she's
helping a couple of hundred people in Vietnam get educated and have food and shelter and that sort
of thing, that makes me proud to be able to say that.

KAREN LEONARD: I do have people say to me, "Gee, I'd never be able to do what you're doing."
Really, if you had the desire, you actually could.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I suppose you could say it puts our interest rate rise into perspective.