Opening a letter in Dubai, Nilmini Jayaweera smiles. The handwriting is neat and the message simple: ‘Thank you.’ It’s not from her family or even a friend. She’s never met the writer, Nandana Kumara, a 15-year-old boy living 3,200km away in Sri Lanka who can now go back to school because of a Dh400 a year sponsorship from Nilmini, a finance manager.
The schoolboy, who had to abandon his studies because his family couldn’t afford his education, calls her his guardian angel. Nilmini, on the other hand is humbled by the fact that the money she might otherwise spend on an evening out with her family has today made such a huge impact on a stranger’s life.
The money was contributed through Candle Aid, a Sri Lankan charity with representatives in Dubai. It’s based on the premise that every little bit really does help, an idea adopted here in 2005 by Sri Lankan expatriate George Hettiaratchy after he and 12 friends started talking at a 40th birthday celebration. They’d eaten well, and crashing down on the sofas, they realised how lucky they all were. “The loud chatter gave way to some pensive thoughts,’’ recalls George, 51, who works with Dubai Health Authority. “One of my friends suggested that instead of spending money on unnecessary luxuries we could perhaps contribute it to a noble cause.’’
It took less than a few seconds for all of them to agree to each put aside a dirham a day for charity. After just three months they’d saved Dh460. “We got together often after that birthday party to decide on which charity to give it to,” says George. “During one of the meetings I mentioned Candle Aid Lanka, a charity initiative started by Captain Elmo Jayawardena, a Singapore Airline pilot, to help poor people in Sri Lanka.
George had read about the charity – named to reflect the Chinese proverb ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’ Like their one-dirham-a-day idea, the saying summed up their belief that a small act can have a huge effect. “We did some research and were impressed by its humanitarian efforts and decided to go ahead and give them the money,” George explains.
They also decided to call their own group Friends (Fund Raising Involvement and
Efforts for the Needs of the Disadvantaged in Sri Lanka) and use the money to help educate two university students, two high school students and to provide daily rations for two poor families in Sri Lanka. “It was a heartwarming moment to know that our initiative was helping so many people,’’ says George, who is now the Candle Aid representative in Dubai.
Today the number of contributing families in Dubai has increased to 43 thanks to word-of-mouth. Together they sponsor eight high school students, eight university students and provide food to eight families.
Keen to spread awareness about the charity, George invited Captain Elmo, now also an award-winning author, to give a talk last month in Dubai. “The event, held at the Sheraton Hotel, Deira, was well attended by 143 Sri Lankan expats in Dubai,” says George. “He’s an inspiration to all of us,” George admits. “Meeting him was memorable. He always has interesting stories to tell and inspirational thoughts to share.”
Donations poured in – and some of the Friends group now want to contribute20 dirhams more every month to help. The event was such a success, and as well as raising awareness, a new youth group – Little Candle Makers – was formed.
Coordinated by George’s 15-year-old daughter Hiruni, 30 teenagers have made it their mission to collect old textbooks, clothes and shoes and donate them to poor children in Sri Lanka. Its members are aiming to collect Dh335 from students to help 33 students at the Thummodara Girls Home, an orphanage in Sri Lanka. Little Candle Makers also plans to collect unused notebooks and send them to poor children in Sri Lanka.
The Friends have come a long way, and are inspired to do even more after meeting the man behind Candle Aid which Captain Elmo created in 1995. An award-winning author as well as a trainer pilot for Boeing, he wanted to help others. “I have seen tough times so I always wanted to do something for the underprivileged people of my country,” the 64-year-old says. “During the peak of my career with Singapore Airlines, I remember writing a letter to a friend reflecting on my life,’’ he continues.
“I wrote ‘I can proudly say I have two children who have done well in life. This was possible because I was able to give them education, shelter, food, medical facilities and clothing. But a poor parent can only give unlimited love. To give their children a good life they need money that can cover the basic necessities’.” The letter spurred Elmo, his wife Dil Jaywardena and four friends into forming a co-directive group and called the Association for Lighting a Candle. The name was later changed to Candle Aid. “I believe we cannot change everything but we can change some things,” says Elmo.
Pahala Gedara Jayathilake is one of Candle Aid’s success stories. Crippled by polio as an infant, this son of a widowed vegetable vendor in Sri Lanka is today a post doctoral research fellow at the National University of Singapore thanks to a scholarship from the charity. “Meeting Captain Elmo was the most defining moment of my life as it opened several opportunities for me,” he says.
Thushara Niroshan Bandara, a 28-year-old armless graphic designer also thanks Captain Elmo for his professional success today. As a student of architecture at Moratuwa University, Thushara came in touch with Captain Elmo. He defines this meeting as a turning point in his life. “I got a full financial scholarship from Candle Aid. Later the organisation helped me get a computer and finally a job in a premium television channel in Sri Lanka,” says Thushara. “What I gained from Candle Aid cannot be described in words.”
The Candle Aid effect
Today Candle Aid, a government-approved charity has 21 branches worldwide and runs several charity programmes offering help in providing food, shelter, education, healthcare and clothing to the underprivileged in Sri Lanka.
Giving poor children an opportunity in life through education is Candle Aid Lanka’s principal charity programme. Students at the school level receive a monthly stipend of LKR (Lankan rupee) 800 (Dh26) with an additional donation of LKR1,200 (Dh40) for books and other requirements. University students receive LKR1,600 (Dh53) monthly. Candle Aid Lanka has set up 110 libraries in rural communities in Sri Lanka.
As part of the food programme, destitute families are given a monthly basic food supplement valued at LKR 1800 (Dh60). Nearly 400 families have been assisted to date from the worldwide programme.
Under the shelter programme, 28 houses for the poor, a community hall and a playground was constructed with the support of Candle Aid in Indigaswewa, an impoverished village in the north central province of Sri Lanka.
The organisation also maintains a ward at the Cancer Hospital in Maharagama.
“Another interesting feature of the charity is that it has several innovative projects such as Swim for Safety which offers swimming lessons to underprivileged children. This project was launched after it was found that many children could have saved themselves if they had known how to swim when the tsunami struck in 2005,’’ says Elmo.
The organisation also runs an English communication course and a school for the hearing impaired.
For more details log on to http://www.candleaid.org/contact.html
Making a difference
Who: Capt Elmo Jayawardena
What: Candle Aid
Where: Sri Lanka
How: Raising funds to finance the education of poor students in Sri Lanka