What do you want your legacy to be? These were the words that changed the life of  Manjula Dissanayake, founder of Educate Lanka, a charity that helps underprivileged children. After a life-threatening car accident Manjula revaluated his life’s goals and ambitions. Lying on a bed in a government hospital surrounded by dying, limbless patients and [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Giving opportunities to bright young minds across the country

The founder of Educate Lanka Manjula Dissanayake talks to Dilantha Dissanayake

A student at Omanthai Central College: Educate Lanka’s mission encompasses north and south

What do you want your legacy to be? These were the words that changed the life of  Manjula Dissanayake, founder of Educate Lanka, a charity that helps underprivileged children.

After a life-threatening car accident Manjula revaluated his life’s goals and ambitions. Lying on a bed in a government hospital surrounded by dying, limbless patients and blood splatters on the floor Manjula thought, “What matters in life is not what you accumulate, but what you leave behind.”

“Opportunities come to one’s life in two different ways; first they are given by others – parents, teacher, mentors, family, friends or total strangers. Secondly opportunities you create for yourself: your life events that you convert to your own benefits,” said Manjula while detailing how his time in America shaped the man he is today.

Manjula studied at Trinity College and moved to Washington DC when he was 19 to begin his undergraduate studies in finance at the University of Maryland. His goals were simple: get a good education, a great job and earn a lot of money, one-day returning to Sri Lanka. This was his first opportunity given to him by his parents.

After the tsunami he and the Lankan Diaspora were galvanised into raising funds to help victims and survivors. From this point onwards he wanted to give back to the country he grew up in. The Educate Lanka Foundation (ELF) was born.

The platform was simple. It gave Sri Lankans all over the world the opportunity to invest in future generations. “Educate Lanka is about giving opportunities to others, to dream about achieving their future goals. Access to a quality education is a luxury very few can afford. Poverty is the number one reason children in Sri Lanka drop out of school,” he says.

After his car accident he decided to quit his job and dedicate all his time to EFL. When he started ELF he had 20 students – now there are currently 450 in 25 different locations in Sri Lanka while well over a 1000 have been assisted by the foundation. The sponsors are based in countries where the diaspora have settled, the largest number in America, while there are also sponsors from Australia, UK and right here in Sri Lanka. Scholarships range from $60 to $150 and are awarded to students twice a year. The money is used for stationery, books, boarding fees and transportation and the biggest sum goes for private tuition.

Two weeks ago early on a Sunday morning around 40 pupils dressed in their school uniforms, boys with hair neatly combed and girls with plaits, gathered in the Maris Stella College auditorium in Negombo. Their parents were also present as they received an ELF scholarship. What binds the scholars is their determination to drag themselves out of poverty with the assistance of education. Their circumstances differ for the necessity of a scholarship yet without it they would not be able to compete with more affluent families.

Kevin Fernando and his widowed mother receive assistance from a family member who is a Catholic priest. Kevin goes to the Seventh Day Adventist International School. He is studying for his A’ Levels and hopes to complete a degree in Business Studies. His scholarship mainly goes for his books and private tuition.

When Nipuni Poornima’s father’s job as a chef in Saudi Arabia was interrupted due to unfortunate circumstances, her mother provided for her two children running a small shop on the beach. The ELF scholarship covered the school expenses. A bright student, Nipuni was recently selected for a Global Citizenship workshop in Boston. She hopes to do a degree in Law while also wanting to be a journalist.

Central to ELF are their Liaison Officers (LO), who are made up of practising and retired teachers or leaders in the communities. These volunteers with years of experience find scholars from underprivileged backgrounds who have the potential to excel. Grades are not the only criteria for a scholarship. Social background and leadership skills are also looked at.

At Medawachchiya, a few hours drive from Anuradhapura,  the LO is N.S.J. Silva, a PE teacher and vice principal of a school. He is in charge of 30 students. He became involved with ELF a few years back when he coached the volleyball team that reached the Under 12 national finals, which they won. His boys had one ball to practise with and were the only team to compete without shoes. A teacher from Kurunegala heard about them through the press and decided to make a visit to congratulate the team. She later passed away and at her funeral Mr Silva met a representative of ELF, who decided to support the students in the area, after hearing of their circumstances.

Harshani Premasiri is one of Mr Silva’s success stories. She gained all A’s at the O’ Level and three A’s at the A’level. She now studies Law at Colombo University. Supun Chandradasa is one of Mr Silva’s rising stars. He was on the team that won the volleyball championship. His parents are farmers while his mother  uses her skills as a seamstress to earn extra money. Their monthly income is between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 that provides for the three children.

Manjula: Reaching out to students

A few minutes down the dirt road from Supun’s house lives Charuka Madushani.  Ten family members from three generations live in two small buildings. They too are farmers. She has done extremely well at her O’ Levels and hopes to be a teacher in Sinhala and Buddhism. Asked how Manjula had helped her, she looks down at the ground and with teary eyes says, “words cannot express what he has done for me.”

A few miles north of Vavuniya are around 30 students from the town of Omanthai, another group of bright but underprivileged students.  As you approach Omanthai Central College a sign proclaiming a joint International School Feeding programme conducted by Sri Lanka, Canada and Japan greets you. The sign reads “It’s hard to concentrate on your studies with an empty stomach.” Parents of these students who are  farmers yet suffer from the scars of war.

Kanakanthira Kantharvpan, 18, lost his parents and younger brother in Mullaitivu during the last days of the war. Now his grandmother cares for him. He does four hours of farming a day while also using his scholarship to study English. He hopes to go to University and study Art.

The need for private tuition comes down to a quality issue. “We have 10,000 schools in the country. A few 100 deliver the correct level of education. Currently we spend 1.9% of GDP where we are advocating 6% GDP. So we have fallen behind. Then there is the issue of University places with only 10% of students sitting the A’ Level exams going on to further education,” Manjula says, explaining how this creates a bottleneck situation for families for whom education is the only solution to poverty.

ELF builds its sponsor base from the Diaspora who have been through the further education system and have an emotional attachment to the country. At present they are implementing a new system. Companies are encouraged to sponsor a child right throughout their schooling. A one to one mentorship programme links an employee and student. They teach the student valuable skills that are missing from the standardised testing system as leadership, entrepreneurship and problem solving skills. At present Deutsche Bank has joined this initiative. ELF alumni are also encouraged to help the next generation. Some provide tuition to the younger generation while others even sponsor a scholar.

“Talent is universal. Opportunity is not” is the EFL motto and Manjula has a clear goal for his students “We provide a journey of opportunities. So they would have access to the same tools that the more privileged have. Right now you compete in two different fields and are tested the same. There’s an inequality. We bridge the gap, giving them the same opportunities, then it’s up to the students to empower themselves.”

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