Members of The Gap Uniting Church recently completed a challenging trek through Sri Lanka to raise money to support children with disability. Joanne Allen-Keeling shares her account of the adventure and how UnitingWorld are shaping lives and communities abroad for the better.
On 21 September 2016, the Bridge The Gap team set off for Sri Lanka to visit the projects being sponsored by UnitingWorld in conjunction with the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka. It was an intergenerational team and the first part of the journey was based in the north of Sri Lanka in Killinochi and Jaffna.
We were kindly hosted by Rev Sam Gnanarajah and his team from Deaf Link. Sam started Deaf Link 15 years ago out of love for his deaf son. Now they have 20 staff and provide support to over 1500 people with a range of disabilities. The organisation provides education, vocational training, microfinance loans and self-help groups through its partnerships with non-government organisation’s such as UnitingWorld and the Methodist Church.
Sam and his team treated us like family and showed us a side of Sri Lanka which most foreigners never get to see. It was inspiring to see countless examples of how meaningful and sustainable change can start with just one person.
Our first stop was a remote Tamil village to be part of a celebration of women who completed a six month sewing course. Our team were moved by the warmth, kindness and hospitality we received from this community who are still recovering from being displaced by the Sri Lankan Civil War that killed over 50 000 people.
We were excited to see how lives have been changed through this vocational training all because one woman in the village asked Deaf Link for assistance; this one action has now had a flow on effect to benefit to more than 20 women who have been taught to sew.
Our next visit was to a school in Killinochi that provides inclusive education to children with disability, and again it all started with one person’s passion to make a change. One mother fought for years for the right for her child with disability to access education. It is because of her that the school we visited was started and now more than 100 children with a disability are receiving an education. UnitingWorld is funding teachers through Deaf Link to support the running of this school.
Whilst we were in the north of Sri Lanka we were also able to see how microfinance loans through Deaf Link are making a difference to people’s lives. We went from home to home visiting those with disability whose lives have been transformed through these small interest free loans. Some are making candles, sweets and bags: all have amazing stories of how they have used a tiny loan ($100–200) to make a successful, sustainable business to support their families.
We heard the stories of many people including Varadhi, who shared her brave journey of how she lost both her legs on a land mine during the war. She has used her loan to set up a successful fruit shop. The stories of those who have been able to access the loans and create successful businesses are then used to generate support and empower new people coming into the program. The team were able to present some new recipients (appropriately called visionaries and not beneficiaries) with their new loans.
The second part of the journey was a trek through the southern part of Sri Lanka. This was an opportunity to walk through farmland and villages meeting local people. Under the care of our tour guide Nalaka and his team, we were able to see the diverse and ever-changing scenery of Sri Lanka through tea plantations, along railway tracks and through forests.
Some of the walks were challenging however the team banded together with the strong ones helping those who needed it by carrying their backpacks, pulling them up steep rocky hills and guiding them over tricky steps. It was such a privilege to work so closely as a team.
Throughout our journey we were all moved by the kindness of the Sri Lankan people. Even in the poorest areas we were welcomed into homes, offered tea and made to feel included: we were all deeply humbled by the hospitality.
The trip was a wonderful opportunity to see the amazing work UnitingWorld do through the support they provide to local projects. This grassroots structure is utilising local expertise and resources to empower people and make a meaningful difference. It is providing a vehicle for the passionate individuals that we met to get their ideas off the ground.
From Sam who started Deaf Link, out of love for his deaf son, to the one woman in the village asking for vocational training, to the mother who fought for the right for her disabled child to access education—all of this positive change started with just one person.
The passion and commitment from these individuals, alongside the support of partnerships such as UnitingWorld, is now creating a ripple effect throughout the whole community.
Joanne Allen-Keeling is a member of The Gap Uniting Church and a social work leader at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.