Donvale’s Brother Sean Keefe never married, but he likes to joke it wasn’t only because he took a vow of chastity. The other reason is that there weren’t enough girls called Janet Lee. ‘‘Both my brothers are married to women called Janet Lee,” he says.
It’s a trademark comment from the Kentucky-born larrikin, who this year won Manningham’s Citizen of the Year. “I’m not sure what to think – it was an ambush. I was a bystander,” he says of winning the award. “What do you do? You can’t tell people because then you’re bragging.”
Keefe tends to play down his achievements, even though he’s spent most of his 64 years helping others, whether volunteering in developing countries, or handing out tennis balls to kids in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Since 2006, Keefe has travelled to East Timor twice a year to volunteer on a range of projects. On his first trip to a school in the small town of Zumalai, he was shocked to discover the teachers weren’t there.
“The teachers only had a year 10 education so they couldn’t get a government job and were just volunteering,” he says. “On that particular day they were picking rice in the fields and the kids were running loose.”
Keefe set up a program hiring full-time teachers to educate 200 children, paying them a wage of $600 a year. His work made it possible for four teachers to attend teaching college. “I’m a catalyst for raising money for different projects,” he says. “It’s very rewarding from the point of view that you see a change going on.”
Other projects include funding scholarships – including one for a midwife who wanted to improve her skills – and providing solar electricity to a province that depends on generators.
“You know what sticky tape is? You know what sticky tape wrapped around bare wires looks like? It’s amazing what they had done but it wasn’t very safe. We rewired everything carefully,” he says.
For this project, Keefe teamed up with national sustainability organization Alternative Technology Association and brought materials and volunteers to East Timor from Melbourne. There are even plans to set up a water company to provide jobs and put money back into the economy. The main challenges, Keefe says, are educating people about sanitary use of resources and the importance of putting money aside for rainy days.
“I’m trying to connect with people up there,” he says. And somehow he manages to do this without speaking the language. “I know the word hudi – it means ‘banana’,” he laughs.
Keefe, who works as a chaplain at the Carmelite College, Whitefriars Hall, moved back and forth between Australia and the United States before settling in Melbourne, Australia, in 2001. As a young man his dream of becoming a priest was hampered by learning difficulties and he was later diagnosed as dyslexic. “I wasn’t very smart,” he says. “Dyslexia didn’t exist in the 1950s and ’60s and I kept flunking courses.”
He joined the Carmelite Brothers in 1967 and says the requirements of becoming a brother have changed. “Back then it basically involved living on a chicken farm and putting up with it. It was a matter of survival. Now you need a master’s degree,” he says.
Keefe is now organizing a food drive at Whitefriars College, which will run for one week every month of the school calendar. In his downtime, Keefe will continue to “give out soccer balls and save kids in crisis”.
“I have a very eclectic day, which is nice. It works well for people who are dyslexic. I never know what will happen next.”