Postcard from Cambodia: 500 hearts and 300 soccer balls

7 December 2012

Cambodian children playing with a soccer ball donated through the 500Hearts project
Cambodian children playing with a soccer ball donated through the 500Hearts project

Dr Louise Shewan writes about the remarkable impact of donations received through the 500Hearts project, a University-funded initiative that involves some of the world's leading heart specialists. It is conducted yearly in the villages where Dr Shewan and her colleague Dougald O'Reilly (ANU) undertake archaeological research.

It started with a small mention in the Sydney Morning Herald for a "Call for Balls" for me to take on the next 500Hearts study, an important initiative to prevent heart disease in the children of Cambodia.

Then, the soccer balls kept coming from all over Sydney. From soccer balls sweetly surrendered by children to bags of balls from clubs, these donations filled my office, my car, my home, my life...

But the best was still to come. A reader whose son played soccer contacted me with news that he had some pre-loved balls at his local soccer club. Inconveniently, it was located in Canberra. No problem - I conduct lab research at ANU.

When I met Gordon Carmichael from the ACT's Woden Valley Soccer Club, however, there was a problem. My initial desire was to faint. There wasn't a single bag of balls, but hundreds instead!

After recovering, I had to think through logistics. How could I get the generous donation to Sydney and then of course Cambodia?

Sheepishly, I rang Murrays Coaches and told them I had a "few" extra bits of luggage. To my delight, they happily ferried the soccer balls on different afternoon services and housed them at Central Station in Sydney until I touched down.

I set off to Cambodia in late September with some 450 kg of donated books, toys, clothes, muesli bars and hundreds of soccer balls. Together with my team from 500Hearts, I distributed them among the village children (who were 5 - 16 years old) before we began screening them for rheumatic heart disease.

The balls were shared between schools located around the little village of Lovea in Siem Reap province. There's nothing more lovely than seeing the joy on the kids' faces when they receive the soccer balls and hearing the mayhem that follows when the balls are booted and chased around the school yard.

The 500Hearts project welcomes donations including clothes and toys for the kids and medical supplies (like stethoscopes and bathroom scales) for heart screening. It was initially supported by the University's International Program Development Fund. To find out more, visit For more information on Dr Shewan's archaeological research projects in Cambodia, see In Their Bones and Paddy to Pura: The origins of Angkor.

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