US based mother daughter philanthropists empower underprivileged SL children


By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage

‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’- Nelson Mandela.

The right to education is a recognized human right and has been stated in a number of international conventions. It recognizes a right to free, compulsory primary education for all, an obligation to develop secondary education accessible to all, as well as an obligation to develop equitable access to higher education. It also includes a responsibility to provide basic education for individuals who have not completed primary education, avoid discrimination at all levels of the education system, set minimum standards and improve the overall quality of education. Although many states are party to these conventions, the extent to how states have practiced and/or implemented these rights is debatable and can vary depending on various political backgrounds of states. Even though Sri Lanka is part of these conventions, there remains work to be done.

Education empowers minds that will be able to conceive good thoughts and ideas. Educational issues that children, mostly young girls face in rural Sri Lanka, often goes unnoticed. Most less-fortunate families send their sons to school, while the girls are kept at home to help out with household chores and look after their younger siblings. Most low-income earning families are left with less or no choice at all. The lack of resources coupled with economic problems, narrow the options for these families, leading them to make difficult choices at the end of the day in order to safeguard their family and loved ones.

The state along with numerous non-governmental organizations and even individuals have set up various programs to curb such issues. Sri Lankan expats too have played, and continue to play an important role in pitching in with their share of resources for the overall development of the country and its people.

The Island had the greatest pleasure in interviewing two individuals of a family currently living in the United States; Dr. Achala Gunasekara-Rockwell and her daughter, Nishanthi. Born in the ancient city of Kandy, Dr. Achala recounts how she first developed a passion for helping young girls and later disseminated her knowledge through her children. Dr. Achala currently works for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as the Indian Languages and Cultural Advisor and teaches cultural studies courses, while Nishanthi is still in the 12th grade. Both mother and daughter have achieved much in their own line of work but their efforts as a family to help Sri Lanka develop must not go unheard.

"As a kid growing up in Sri Lanka, I remember we always had a young person to wash my lunch box, put my book bag away, and such, after coming home from school. My mother always said the helpers did that with excitement, because they waited impatiently to receive the free cookies we received from school those days. While I was told by my parents that I should get a good education, I often wondered what these kids were going to do as adults. The parents of these helpers were very happy to see their kids get food to eat, a roof over their heads, in a safe environment. Later in my life, I learned that some parents sent their girls to safe families, in order to avoid keeping them in unsafe or abusive environments. That is when I came up with the idea to help them out."

She also shed some light on how boys are still given preference over girls in Sri Lanka. "We still value boys over girls in Sri Lanka," she said. "Go to any orphanage and see, girls always outnumber the boys. If we look at countries like India, female infanticide is still common even in 21st century."

Dr. Achala was fortunate enough to receive her basic education in her homeland before moving abroad. But she never let her passion die. "When I was an undergraduate, I remember collecting school supplies and taking them to Sri Lanka. My parents are involved with the ‘Sigithi Lama Sevana’ orphanage in Kandy, so it became almost a habit for me to take school supplies every summer. I have since passed on these 'habits' to my own children as well."

She now uses her platform and status in the United States to introduce and enhance awareness of issues in the South Asian region at the various schools she has worked in, offering courses and study abroad opportunities related to the region. "My lectures always include social issues, thus, informing students of the plight of those struggling in less developed countries.

She gives due recognition to her parents and her husband, Dr. Ernest Rockwell for both inspiring and driving her to work towards helping young children. "My parents have always been very supportive. My father always said, where ever you go, don’t forget that you were born and raised in Sri Lanka and do great things to help Sri Lanka. My husband has also been very passionate about helping children in Sri Lanka. In fact, he would adopt a passel of them, if I let him!" she added with a smile.

Being so far away from home and in a country where children have ample opportunities to pursue education, Dr. Achala and her husband were keen on lending a helping a hand to those in Sri Lanka. It is their passion that has passed on to their children who, although born and raised in the United States, visit the orphanage whenever they come down to Sri Lanka. This allowed the siblings to understand the difficulties other children face in getting an education.

Their latest endeavour is the brainchild of daughter, young Nishanthi Rockwell. Upon Achala's suggestions, in 2017 the pair wrote a grant proposal to the British international charity INTO Giving, a branch of the company that employs her mother, and initially secured close to $10,000 in assistance to the Room to Read foundation in California. Room to Read is a non-profit organization for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world. In 2018, the latter organization extended its funding for another year and last year, decided to expand this programme into a strategic partnership, providing an additional $25,000 for each of the next three years. The project also expanded to eight different countries in the Indo-Pacific region, to keep 50,000 children in school.

Her mother states that Nishanthi drew inspiration from her visits to Sri Lanka and was very committed to conducting her own research about the Sri Lankan education system and condition of the less fortunate in developing countries. "She was only fourteen years old at the time," her mother recalls, while adding that working together has brought them a renewed sense of purpose. "For young Nishanthi, it has opened her eyes to just how easy her life has been in comparison to the children she is working to help. It’s easy for teenagers to perceive life as being so challenging and become self-centered. Working on such a project has kept Nisha away from developing such a narrow and juvenile perspective," she added further.

While remaining committed to her wholesome endeavors, Nishanthi is skilled in managing her studies and other activities on the side. ‘Nishanthi maintains a very busy social life and takes the most advanced classes offered in her high school,’ her mother states. In addition, she serves as the executive treasurer for the student government association, participates in a number of other student organizations, and conducts several hours of community service. She is also a talented ‘Bharatanatyam’ dancer and over the past several years, she has combined her dancing skills with community outreach, helping the Montgomery Area Council on Aging to raise tens of thousands of dollars through performing, as a featured dancer at local fundraising events.

Speaking to The Island herself, Nishanthi bared a glimpse at her future plans. ‘I definitely plan on continuing to help children. I also plan to major in biomedical engineering in college, to focus on developing advanced prosthetic devices for children in developing and least developed countries.’ One project she is hoping to assist is The Motion Project, an organization started by another non-resident Sri Lankan, Donald de Alwis, who is currently a senior at the University of Maryland. This organization focuses on providing "students with physical disabilities in Sri Lanka the resources to gain a quality education and enter the workforce. "Sri Lanka will always be a part of who I am and I will definitely continue to make contributions to the island and its people in all that I do," she said in her final remarks.

When asked about the role played by non-resident Sri Lankans, Dr. Achala stated that they play a key role in helping the island gain its footing. 'We can share our knowledge and insights that we have gained from living overseas, the successes and failures we have witnessed." Sri Lanka she added is also heavily dependent on foreign aid. "We rail against the past sins of colonialism, and then we ask for handouts from the more advanced nations, which is simply a more polite form of colonialism and often comes with strings attached. Our country is rich in resources, people, and skills, and if we can harness those, we can become as wealthy as Singapore, South Korea, or other burgeoning Asian nations. We can then pour some of that wealth back into the communities and redress these lingering social problems that continue to plague us," she said.

Nishanthi also added that in the States, they hear about non-resident Indians/ Indian diaspora communities doing all they can to help their motherland tackle their social and economic problems. "I seldom hear of anything comparable among the other South Asian diasporas, including Sri Lankans. That’s not to say it isn’t being done—obviously Donald de Alwis and countless others are helping substantially. However, it isn’t reported in the media—here or there—to the same extent. Getting the word out would help a great deal, and the government could certainly lend a hand in that public relations arena," she stated further.

Sri Lanka has embarked on a new journey towards achieving progress and development in various fields, and it's important that the island and its citizens receive all the help they can get. People such as Dr. Achala and her family are a few of the many non-resident Sri Lankans volunteering to provide their knowledge and wealth to building Sri Lanka one step at a time, and their tremendous efforts and dedication should not go unnoticed nor without a great deal of thanking.

Dr. Achala and her husband hope to return to Sri Lanka and live out their retirement period by spending time at orphanages and retirement homes, helping care for those who need it. "It is very humbling and rewarding to be involved in such endeavors. It is heartbreaking to see the situation that some of these children are in, but it is encouraging to see that so many people are striving to improve that situation. I know these issues are universal; however, I highly believe that if we give a solid understanding of the value of education and teach them the general awareness of certain topics in life, we could improve the life of one girl at a time," Dr. Achala said in her final comments.

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