ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29

Shedding light on AFLAC

By Anne Abayasekara

Like me, you’ve probably heard of the `Association For Lighting a Candle’ (AFLAC) and have a vague idea of the kind of work they do. Recently, however, the name of Capt. Elmo Jayawardena has kept cropping up on the lips of several friends who are involved in one or another of AFLAC’S many and varied projects.

Then, a school friend of my daughter’s, a doctor working in Oman, sent me an e-mail about the key role played behind the scenes by Capt.Elmo’s wife, Dil, in the ongoing, multi-faceted activities of the Association. It spurred me to seek an interview with this extraordinary couple. The morning I spent with them, listening to their story, was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences I have had in over 50 years of journalism.

It’s difficult to compress it into a single newspaper article, but I will try. Naturally, I wanted to know how it all started. When Capt. Elmo began flying for Singapore Airlines in 1995, their income suddenly rose dramatically.

“Neither of us was born with a silver spoon in the mouth. When our finances improved in this undreamed of way, we decided we would put aside something every month to be used to meet some need back home in Sri Lanka,” said Dil. Elmo added, “We thought about it and felt that instead of just helping people haphazardly, we should form an association and plan how we were going to set about things.

Four friends joined us and that’s how this enterprise began. I had heard the saying, `It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’ and that’s how the `Association For Lighting A Candle’, - came into being.” Dil took up the tale again: “We wanted to offer children in need the same things we would give our children, things like education and food, for example. Extra tuition was provided for rural children who needed it and then the idea developed into finding sponsors for poor university students who could do with a helping hand.”

AFLAC found that doors opened in the most amazing way and that “There is so much kindness waiting to be tapped,” as Dil put it. Today, there are 850 students – school and university – receiving the benefit of that extra funding, in all nine provinces. Let me briefly relate the story of just one of them, a 3rd year engineering student known as MW, who has been sponsored by AFLAC for his higher education.

Capt. Elmo happened to pick up MW’s file one day and felt inexplicably prompted to ask the young man to come to meet him. “When I spoke to MW, he mumbled monosyllabic answers. He kept his head down and nodded and just said `yes’ or `no’.“MW’s hair was uncut, his shirt and slacks were threadbare and he kept fiddling with his worn-out sandals. I also noticed that to read something, he held the paper close to his eyes. He had a look with which I was all too familiar – a look which says `Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’ MW had no money to have his hair cut, no money for spectacles. His sandals had given way and he had borrowed a pair from a friend to come to meet me. His total wardrobe consisted of two shirts and two pairs of slacks. I didn’t ask him what he ate. MW’s A/Level results, however, were something else! He had offered Physics, Chemistry, Math & Applied Math, with brilliant results, getting straight `A’s in all 3 subjects.

“His parents back home in a village in central Sri Lanka, struggled to make ends meet. AFLAC, through the generosity of sponsors, was able to change his situation. “It cost 40 dollars to completely renovate and refurbish MW - shirts, slacks, shoes, slippers, haircut; eyes tested and prescription given and new spectacles bought. For the first time, I saw him smile. He looked me in the eye and said, `It’s like a dream.’

“There are many MWs in our country. The gap is so wide between the BMWs and the MWs that neither can imagine what the other’s world is like.” The “Gift a Meal” programme - as with other programmes - brings together beneficiaries and co-ordinators. There is a named coordinator for every beneficiary on the list. The co-ordinator’s task is to buy the rations each week for the family or families under his/her care, AFLAC providing the necessary cash. “We have cut through class barriers,” said Elmo. “Our co-ordinators and workers come from all walks of life, from people like Bradman Weerakoon to Ekanayake, the chauffeur who drove you here. There are retired elders, 3-wheeler drivers, security guards, housewives and big-time bankers – we need to harness the energy of all the willing people there are, eager to do their bit to help those in need.”

Once a year, there is a meeting of all these good people and they converge on Moratuwa then from remote parts of the country as well as from suburbs nearer Colombo. Sponsorship for Cancer patients is another regular programme and this helps to provide the drugs that patients need, extra nourishment where necessary, even equipment for the hospital.

At the heart of it all: Dil Jayawardena with AFLAC families

“Candle Factory” is AFLAC’s informative e-mail news letter compiled by two volunteers who reside in Hong Kong, Jaliya & Tehani Pilimathalawe. I read in a recent issue about a newly-married couple living in London, Dr. Romesh & wife Penny, who decided to donate all wedding gifts that came in the form of cash, to the Cancer Hospital.

They approached AFLAC with their generous contribution which was used to provide new curtains for the ward plus some essential repair work. In addition, this couple found another sponsor who provided material for bed-sheets and pillow cases for the whole ward. Again through “Candle Factory”, I learned of Anura Dias in Perth who, on his 50th birthday party, requested his friends to make a donation to AFLAC instead of giving him any presents, and kept a box at the entrance, marked: `Thank you for your donations to AFLAC’. He raised Aus. $ 1070 in this way and the money was used for the Cancer Patients Project, providing food and medicine, and/or maintenance of the ward.

There’s the Library Project, whereby 40 school libraries have been established up to September this year. Many sponsors have helped, but I would mention another story I read in the CF, about Iromi Perera, an A/Level student at Bishop’s College (she represented Sri Lanka at the Future World Leaders Summit in Washington D.C.), who single-handedly collected 450 books from friends and relatives and donated them to Sri Rahula Vidyalaya in Balummahara, Gampaha, for the school library.

The “English Communication Programme” provides a three-months course in spoken English free of charge, to selected students who meet every Sunday morning at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya. The intake for each course has to be limited to 160 which means, of course, that AFLAC volunteers must screen and pick the students.

There are 8 teachers. When Mr. Ekanayake was driving me back from Moratuwa, he told me he had attended one course and how much it had helped him gain fluency in English. The 5th English course is currently in progress. The most recent enterprise that AFLAC is carrying out successfully, is its “Swim for Safety” classes for children who would normally never have access to a pool. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Mevan, AFLAC’S Chief Coordinator for Tsunami Relief, came up with the idea of initiating free swimming classes for children.

Funding was sought and plans were drawn up for building a pool that would be used to train 1000 children per year, for ten years. AFLAC built a swimming pool on the grounds of St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa. The school maintains the pool and its pupils have the use of it, but gives AFLAC a hundred hours use of it per month.

Swim suits are provided for the kids and the 12-lesson course, conducted by professional coaches, under the watchful eyes of lifeguards employed by AFLAC, commenced in January 2007 with pupils from three schools in Moratuwa and a team from the tsunami-devastated village of Modera. Soon, they came from all over the place, from religious institutes and from small social clubs in little hamlets.

A Muslim contingent from Keselwatte was sent by AFLAC leader, Jeelan. Mr. Bradman Weerakoon brought children from Payagala and SSP Latiff came with children of STF staff. The Koralawella Gramasevaka, Lakmal, brought his team from a tsunami refugee camp. Elmo tells how two ladies from the Egoda Uyana beach shanties came to enrol 25 beach children. At the end of each course, certificates are awarded to the young swimmers, with quite a ceremony. “I was there,” said Elmo, “when the Egoda Uyana lot received their awards, and it did my heart good to see these children in their Nike swimwear charging across the water while barefooted fathers and dressing-gowned mothers excitedly cheered them on.”

As at November this year, 1053 children had learned to swim. For the many children who simply can’t afford the bus fare, free transport is available. I learned from Elmo that my correspondent in Oman had gifted a Milo machine so that the learners could have a drink of Milo at the end of their lesson.

I could go on and on – about the “Shelter” projects, for example, which not only built houses for tsunami victims, (30 houses in Panadura, 19 houses in Kalutara and 20 houses in Hambantota), but put up a school building with 14 classrooms in Matara, and the AFLAC Village of 28 houses in Indigasawewa.

Dil is the pivot of AFLAC, working untiringly to draw in new sponsors, going out to meet with families whom AFLAC has helped, “she’s the one with the broom, picking up the bits and pieces,” says Elmo. AFLAC sponsors are scattered across Sri Lanka, Dubai, Singapore, Frankfurt, Sydney, London, Melbourne, Texas, Toronto, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and maybe elsewhere too.

Sheran, a truck-driver in Canada, sent $1170 and when Elmo wrote him a personal letter of thanks, this was the reply he received: “What’s a thousand dollars? A coffee costs me $1.50. I used to buy about 3 a day while driving. Remember I drive an 18-wheeler, averaging 500 miles a day. Here’s the math: 3x1.50 = 4.50. 4.50 x 5 days = 22.50. 22.50 x 52 weeks = 1170. So all I’m doing is saving 1.50 at a time for the cause.” Sheran sponsors destitute families and needy students through AFLAC.

Since 1995, AFLAC International has spent Rs.140 million on projects and Rs. 3.68 million on administrative expenses (2.6%). B.R. de Silva & Co. are the auditors. Elmo & Dil took me on a quick visit to the unpretentious but efficiently-run office in Rawatawatte, staffed by retired people with expertise to offer, and by school leavers bringing their own special gifts, all of them fully committed to the business of “candle lighting.”

Mr.Vernon de Mel, (fondly known as “Vernon Aiya”), retiree from Moratuwa, manages the office and is also Chief Organiser of the Education Project. He finds great satisfaction in his work of meeting with applicants for the AFLAC scholarships and helping to select the most deserving. He is amply rewarded for the time and effort he puts in, he says, when he sees so many young people from poor rural backgrounds, now gainfully employed and serving the country in medical, engineering, accounting, management and administrative fields.

Elmo told me how he had gone for a run in LA one morning and had seen a clear sky with a single large white cloud drifting across it. “I sat down on a bench and watched it. The cloud had no definite shape, but it was very clear in the sky and it moved slowly but very steadily. That is what I want AFLAC to be: clear to see, with no strict shape, and moving steadily .”

Many of us will be lighting Christmas candles in our homes this month. Maybe, we should think about piercing the gloom that envelops so many poor homes in our land by trying to observe the true Christmas spirit all year round. We could join hands with the `Association For Lighting a Candle’ and effectively dispel the darkness for even one person or family in need.

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