Behind the counter, Mel Wijegooneratne is slicing up cake. At just Rs.280/- a slice, the many layered masterpiece is nearly sold out. It might not be quite what you’d expect from someone who studied for a degree in Anthropology and Politics in the UK, but Mel says she’s just where she belongs, behind the scenes at The Warehouse Project.
“I was always fascinated with the study of people and cultures,” she says. After finishing her degree, Mel initially chose to work at a publishing house in Oxford and then added a stint at the advertising agency Oglivy to her resume.
“However, I was never passionate about the work I was doing, I knew I wanted something else,” she says, adding, “That’s when I decided to take a sabbatical and go travelling around the world.” Backpacking in South-East Asia for a year, she wound up in Colombo to celebrate Christmas with her family. It was a turning point. She chose to take Kirby and Fiona De Lanerolle up on their offer to become Project Manager at the Warehouse Project. It was their vision that swayed her: “breaking the barriers of social ‘norms’ by providing a platform for Colombo’s society and community to integrate on a parallel.” It was the right decision. “This was exactly where I wanted to be. I haven’t looked back since.”
“Cakes for A Cause, is part of the Warehouse Café,” Mel says, promising confidently, “eating has never been this good!” 100% of the profits from the cake sales are channelled back into the Warehouse’s Eat program, whose goal is providing at least one meal free to 50 people from the surrounding community every day of the year. For those who buy the cakes, doing good was perhaps never quite this delicious. “The most popular items on our menu include ‘Gooey Chocolate Cake’ and ‘Millionaire’s Chocolate Cake,’ we do have other hot favourites; ‘Ultimate Chocolate Brownie,’ ‘Banana Bread’ and ‘Madeira Cake’,” she says, adding, “We are also trying out some new Organic recipes and fresh homemade breads. And we have organic fruit and veggies for sale every fortnight from our very own family run farm in Embalapitya.”
Under their roof, the organisation supports several projects. Among them are Borderless which uses art, music, drama and sports as a platform for children from Colombo to socialize and build lifelong friendships with each other. Recently, children from the Warehouse working closely with the Mind Adventures Theatre Company staged a play at ArtWalk 2011. Another program, dubbed Learn, provides educational classes and work experience to the community. “We have successfully tied up with Beyond Borders, SVS school for English and RR Donelly to run English Classes and Computer training workshops,” says Mel. “We have also placed young adults with local businesses for work experience, these young adults get the full experience of work and on the job training, with employment opportunities at the end.”
Yet a third program, Live, provides free access to healthcare. “Last year we hosted an eye camp, with over 200 members of the community benefiting from free eye checkups, Next week we will have health checkups for all the community children and a dental clinic.” Children are encouraged to get together after school for Milk – ‘a homework club’ where they are provided with a snack, milk and vitamins in addition to a safe space in which they can learn. A newer program targeted at Community Entrepreneurs provides micro-financing to help nurture small businesses.
“Our programs are not only organized to meet different needs of the community but also focus on dealing with integrating Colombo’s society and community, infusing them with a sense of dignity, to work together to impact the future generations of the nation,” says Mel.
Every month, Mel estimates the Warehouse Project reaches out 1000 people. Key to their success has been their embracing of volunteerism. “We promote volunteerism and believe that through volunteerism we can achieve a culture of honour,” she says, adding that while volunteers are drawn from all over the globe, they look out particularly for locals. In fact, they are currently involved with the V Awards (Volunteer Awards) whose purpose is to recognize and promote volunteerism throughout the island.
“The Warehouse Project sits as the co-chair for the national steering community that organizes it and as chief adjudicator for the worthy candidates,” says Mel. Eventually they hope to create their own music videos, “music to inspire volunteerism,” says Mel.