Kushil Gunasekera is a lucky man. He had gone to a school function with 30 grade 4 and 5 children from his village and was waiting for his best friend, Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan, to arrive when the tsunami struck. The school was on higher ground, overlooking the village, and when he saw giant waves thundering towards him he rushed the children to even higher ground, where they sheltered in a shrine.
It was 9.45am on December 26, 2004, and while his village, Seenigama, in southwest Sri Lanka, was destroyed and 30,000 killed on the island, Kushil and the children survived.
"It was lucky that Muralitharan had overslept and was late to make it to the event," says Kushil, shuddering at the memories of the tsunami, which left 125 dead in Seenigama alone. Murali was unhurt because he was still travelling from the island's capital, Colombo, and knew nothing about the tsumani until he arrived and saw the devastation.
He and Kushil, 56, decided there and then to rebuild the village - and to make it even better than before. They knew it would be difficult but Kushil had already started working towards improving Seenigama and the lives of those who lived there after launching a charity Foundation of Goodness (FoG).
"Much of the village was under 12 feet of water," recalls Kushil. "Almost all the houses in the village were in ruins." The sight of so much misery and despair moved Kushil to act immediately. A quick survey revealed that around 150,000 people's livelihoods were disrupted and they needed help urgently.
Before the tsunami, hundreds of residents on the south coast worked as coral miners, illegally harvesting the sea for material traditionally used to build houses in the area. Kushil says the systematic erosion of the coral reefs exposed the coast to the full fury of the tsunami.
"There was hardly any breakwater or resistance when the waves came in," he says. "Keeping people away from this business was critical."
Thus began Kushil and Muralitharan and their team of trustees' - including former Sri Lanka cricket captain Kumar Sangakkara, legendary fast bowler Chaminda Vaas, Rohan Iriyagolle, an investment banker who had been a promising cricketer during his school days, and entrepreneur Ashan Malalasekara - long trek towards rebuilding a battered Seenigama.
Giving children a chance
Kushil had dreamed of helping the villagers long before the deadly tsumani almost wiped it off the map. He was a successful businessman dealing in sugar, and before that a national-level first-class cricketer.
He quit the world of business and sport in 1999 to become a full-time social entrepreneur and help the village he was born in.
"I came across hundreds of kids who I'm sure were smarter and more talented than I ever was and felt it was unfair that while I had chances because I had a good education, they were unable to rise above their lot because they were poor," he says. "I wanted to give them a chance, the same I'd been given. That was why I started the charity, Foundation of Goodness."
Kushil had always been connected with the high-profile world of Sri Lankan cricket having played for his colleges, Trinity and Ananda, as well as the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), Galle and Tamil Union cricket clubs. He was the under-19 World Cup Secretary of Sri Lanka Cricket in 1999-2000. That was how he became close to Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara and Chaminda Vaas. In fact, Muralitharan became such a close friend that he made Kushil his cricketing manager. Likewise, his friends too helped him out when Kushil dreamt of giving the villagers of Seenigama a fighting chance.
"In 1995, when I first came up with the idea of making Seenigama a model village, I had no idea how it would work out," says Kushil. "It was the tragedy of the tsunami that gave us a firm direction to work on."
When the extent of the devastation became clear, Kushil decided to act swiftly. His ancestral home that had been one of the few properly constructed buildings was one of the few structures that, although badly damaged, managed to survive. It was later repaired and donated to FoG to serve as its headquarters.
FoG initiated immediate emergency relief measures and a major fund-raising programme.
"Initially we provided basic requirements like re-building houses and providing running water and electricity," says Kushil.
More than 1,000 houses were rebuilt through the initiative, which cost FoG approximately $3 million. The funds were largely Kushil's and that of a few philanthropists including cricketing stars like Muralitharan and Chaminda.
The village has come a long way
FoG went on to provide scholarships for local children, workshops and institutes for men and women to learn a trade and it built a host of sporting facilities, including a world-class swimming and diving centre funded by singer Bryan Adams, who came forward to help the people hit by the tsunami.
Muralitharan, Kumar and Chaminda, along with other international cricketing legends like Sir Ian Botham, among others, coach the school students at a cricket oval built to international standards.
Kushil looks on with pride at the children who have made good through FoG's programmes. "We have a boy, Pulina Tharanga, who was orphaned at 11 in the tsunami and now he's in the Sri Lankan under-19 cricket team," he says. "He may even make it to the national side. We have swimmers, netball players who are very talented and are now in the national teams.
"Avantika Yasodha Mendes did not even play cricket five years ago. After training she played for the Seenigama women's cricket team, and today is the opener for the Sri Lankan women's cricket team."
Today, FoG is the backbone of Seenigama. "I didn't expect this tragic setback - the tsunami - to turn into a blessing," says Kushil. "We now have more that 30 empowerment activity centres catering to about 25,000 villagers annually, free of cost. We cater to about 50 neighbourhood communities across a radius of about 20km. It gives the chance for children, men and women to be educated, pursue their dreams, and upgrade their skills. It's almost like a university, a one of a kind holistic model, in our village."
Kushil knew that job skills without communication skills in English didn't really work in the international market. So, in 2008 he opened the doors for English education for the villagers at the foundation's MCC Centre of Excellence. The Seenigama Diving and Training Centre offered to impart training to the villagers who are traditional coral divers. A computer and information training centre served to bring them up to date with technology. Apart from the high-profile trustees' contributions, Kushil and the cricket legends managed to attract big names from the field of sports around the world to donate their time for fund-raisers.
Opportunity came knocking
The diving centre is the reason Kushil was recently in Dubai. Emrill, a facilities management company in the UAE, has expressed interest in hiring divers and lifeguards trained by the Seenigama Diving and Training Centre, and Kushil and his management team are here to scout the possibilities.
The reason for Emrill's interest is its commercial director, Saeed Ahmad.
While on a cricket tour of Sri Lanka with his friends, Saeed, who at the time was working in the UK, happened to play at the world-class cricket pitch at Seenigama. When he learnt that FoG was responsible for creating the pitch for its sports facilities for poor children, he decided to do his bit to help the charity.
"We - my friends and I - raised Rs1 million by organising a raffle in the UK, from our friends and family, and also by putting up a page on the Just Giving website, to donate to victims of the tsunami in Seenigama, and who better to donate it to than Kushil who was doing such great work," says Saeed.
The money, collected in 2010, helped rebuild a school that had been destroyed in the tsunami. "After we saw FoG's efforts, I've been looking for opportunities to help them," he says.
When Saeed moved to the UAE with Emrill, and openings for lifeguards at facilities such as gated communities managed by the company arose, he thought of FoG's Seenigama Diving Centre. "This was a perfect opportunity."
"We have 60 students graduating every year from the diving and training centre," says Kushil. "When Saeed, through Emrill, offered them openings in Dubai to work as life guards, we were overwhelmed."
Diving has always been a part of the way of life in Seenigama. "For generations the people have been engaged in coral mining, which is environmentally and legally unacceptable," says Kushil.
"The villagers realised that because of the mining, the natural breakwaters had been destroyed and the waves generated by the tsunami could invade about two kilometres into the shore and wreck destruction," says Kushil. "So they gave up coral mining but that led to large-scale unemployment."
FoG decided to step in and start the diving centre to re-train the local divers. "Emrill's offer of employment is a great opportunity for our students," says Kushil. "Also the villagers don't have to spend from their own pockets to pay agencies for placement and visas as Emrill takes care of it all. Earlier, they had to mortgage their land or sell jewellery to get a job abroad."
Equipped with the right skills for the job
Saeed may be driven by altruism, but he has his priorities right. "Their diving skills, honed by the diving centre, are really good. The centre has a fully accredited lifeguard course they teach there," he says. "It means we are getting life guards who are fully trained and ready.
"The Foundation gives them free English courses, and customer service courses. They come with all skills intact, which makes them perfect for us. When we went on our first recruitment trip, six weeks ago, 30 young men came down for an interview and we selected 12 of them straightaway."
Emrill plans to recruit more lifeguards every three to four months. "We are looking for more than just lifeguards," says Saeed.
"We'll be able to take on concierges, housekeepers, security guards, and even technical staff, because they already teach electrical courses at FOG."
What is it that drives him? Kushil demurs modestly. Saeed says, "Kushil had a very successful sugar trading business that he sold to start FoG. He's given up his personal life in a way to help the community.
"The amount of work he's done for the community is fantastic. I was blown away when I visited Seenigama. Anybody can get some people to donate some money and give it to people. But Kushil's effort makes it all very sustainable."
FoG does depend on large-scale donations and high-profile sponsors who fund its various projects. Muralitharan and the other trustees also work tirelessly to raise funds.
"Now I have no more money to fund projects," says Kushil. "We have so many projects that it takes about $3.4m to operate them annually. We get a lot of funding from overseas donors, but we are also looking at various sources of income that would be sustainable for the foundation."
Helping more than 50 villages
The reason FoG is looking for more funding is because its activities have expanded beyond Seenigama. "Seenigama has only 350 families, but we cater to 50 other villages in the region," says Kushil. "Web design costs $300 to learn, but a boy in our village learns it for free. Each sector is sponsored by a donor. Sixty per cent of our donations now come by word of mouth. FoG benefits 25,000 people in the south, and around 5,000 people in the north."
The programmes are diverse, and encompass men and women, children and elders, and apart from imparting skills and generating employment, also look at spiritual development, social skills and teaching good values.
The foundation also gives children bicycles in cases where the school is far away from their homes. "My intention is also to give them good values, catching them at a very young age," says Kushil. "We have a concept called the Children's Goodness Clubs for teenagers where we teach them good values. The motto is ‘Be good and do good'.
"I am very fortunate that several legendary Lankan cricketers like Murali, Kumar Sangakkara and Chaminda Vaas - who the kids look up to as heroes - have joined me in this effort."
Run by the children themselves, the club conducts workshops, games and community work programmes, teaching them to be more thoughtful, grateful and helpful at home and in their communities.
When he looks back, Kushil sees the crumbling edifice that was Seenigama after the tsunami. "From that we rose to this happy state," he says. "We built it back brick by brick and today we are a model for others to follow. Adversity helps some to break records and others to break down."
Kushil today is a far cry from his privileged past. He wears the same black T-shirt as his FOG staff, and worries about every penny he spends on behalf of his organisation. But the smile never disappears from his face.
"I may be poor on the outside, but inside I am the richest man!" he says.