From the trails of destruction in the wake of the wretched tsunami of December 26, 2004 have emerged stirring tales of bravery and courage, of sacrifice and compassion, of support and love and empathy.
The tsunami touched lives in unimaginable ways. There was extraordinary mayhem, tremendous loss of human life and property; any which way you looked at it, the damage was unquantifiable.
Sri Lanka bore the brunt of nature’s fury from deep down south to well into the north. A tiny hamlet called Seenigama, some 20 kilometres away from Galle, was particularly badly affected, with 152 people tragically being claimed from a village that then housed 300 families.
They say it is always darkest before dawn, that every cloud has a silver lining. Seenigama’s silver lining answered to the name of the Foundation of Goodness, instituted in 1999 by Kushil Gunasekara but which found its true calling in the immediacy of the tsunami.
When it was established in 1999, the Foundation was a modest facility that overhung the Gunasekara Holiday Home. The premises that housed the villa also included tennis and basketball courts; one not so small corner had a playschool for LKG and UKG kids, apart from providing English and computer classes and sports training to children from Seenigama and nearby villages, and offering basic health care to the underprivileged in the form of a simple medical clinic.
By the time of the tsunami, Gunasekara had got Muttiah Muralitharan on board as one of the trustees. Gunasekara then was Murali’s manager; the legendary offspinner was so taken in by the concept that he came on board, giving more than his time, his name and his goodwill to the cause.
With Murali as the chief guest, the Foundation was in the process of handing out essential school utilities – books, uniforms, shoes, backpacks – when the tsunami struck on that fateful Sunday. The kids, their parents, Gunasekara, Murali – they all made a beeline to a nearby Buddhist temple on elevated ground as water came gushing on to the compound, nearly a kilometre off the sea with houses and trees all standing in the way of the waters. The temple housed the families for three months as houses that were destroyed were being rebuilt. It served as a relief camp, with those unaffected offering help without a second thought.
Not long afterwards, Gunasekara gave away the Holiday Home to the cause. Help started pouring in from various quarters once the good work of the Foundation began to be broadcast far and wide. “I was a youngster who grew up here in Seenigama, but I was lucky enough and privileged enough be educated in Colombo,” Gunasekara, currently vice-president of the interim committee governing Sri Lanka Cricket, tells Wisden India. “But each time I went back to Seenigama from Colombo, I saw hundreds of my brothers and sisters denied the opportunity of decent education.
“I was very intrigued to find out why this disparity existed. In our part of the world, the gap between the privileged and the not so privileged is far too wide. I thought I would try to help to the extent that I can. Then I became Murali’s manager, and he wanted to join hands. That’s how the Foundation started in 1999, with a small budget of US $1000.”
Then came the tsunami. “And waves of compassion from destruction,” Gunasekara, soft-spoken, whispers. “The Foundation has grown by 60,000 times, now the budget is US $60,000. It has been an amazing journey.”
Typically, Gunasekara deflects attention from himself, pointing to the efforts of three of Sri Lanka’s most illustrious cricketers – Murali, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene who are all Trustees – as well as those of well-wishers around the world for the success of the Foundation. “Action breeds action,” he says. “I personally feel there is a lot of philanthropy in the world but trust was the missing factor. Once people realised how meticulously and professionally the Foundation is run, they opened their arms and their wallets.”
The Foundation helped rebuild the lives of 20,000 people in the north of Sri Lanka after the three decade-long civil ended in January 2009. “Sanga’s Bikes for Life campaign was a massive hit, too,” Gunasekara reveals. “It started with 25 bicycles; now, we have been able to provide 3700 bikes to people there.”
The amazing aspect of it all is that not a penny is charged by the Foundation for the numerous opportunities it offers people from nearly 50 villages to improve life skills. In the last few years, it has tried to be as self-sustaining as possible by generating income through its own projects including BPO, Dive Tourism and Gourmet Goodness, and has tied up with Tesco for the export of spices that are manufactured in a factory in Colombo. “We are also the only facility to have a dental clinic free of charge in any village in Sri Lanka. I knew nothing about dental or oral care, but when someone offered that support, I took it gleefully. Today, more than 16,000 patients have benefited free of charge from our dental clinic.”
Apart from the empowerment sector that includes English and Tamil classes, women’s enterprise, environment management, computer training, elders’ homes, North development project and Children’s Goodness Club, among other things, there is also a Sports Academy a kilometre away that houses a more than basic gymnasium, a beautifully maintained cricket ground, and netball and volleyball facilities. The Centre for Excellence is supported by London’s Marylebone Cricket Club, and the six-lane 25-metre swimming pool inside that complex has been built from the proceeds generated by Bryan Adams, the rock icon, auctioning his guitar. It is appropriately called the Bryan Adams Swimming Pool.
In November 2013, Sir Ian Botham and Murali made the 256-kilometre walk from Mankulam in the north to Seenigama to raise funds for the Foundation, an effort that brought in handsome dividend. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has personally congratulated Murali and the Foundation through a typewritten note of 2011 for their excellent work, with a handwritten ‘And thank you for being kind with the ball’. Muraitharan’s kindness, and the vision of men like Gunasekara – whose caller tune is Michael Jackson’s Heal The World – is what makes the world a truly better place.