Five years before the 2004 tsunami, the Foundation of Goodness (FoG) was hard at work providing essential services to the villagers of Seenigama, a few hours drive south of Colombo. FoG founder, Kushil Gunasekera, could not know that his skills would be called upon later to rescue his ancestral village from tragedy.
The FoG website (www.unconditionalcompassion.org) describes empowering the disadvantaged seeking a sustainable community model. In practical terms, that means assisting with every facet of life, including shelter, mental health, livelihood, skills development, and youth leadership. All such assistance is delivered in a cultural and religious setting that resonates with villagers.
Part of the FoG orientation includes a desire to develop fitness, talent and life skills through sports. This sports focus is not surprising as Kushil Gunasekera is the manager of Sri Lanka’s famed cricketer, Muttiah Muralidaran. (When a Sri Lankan is asked about Murali they often say “lucky boy”, because he is known to have reached the top from the bottom).
Singer/songwriter Bryan Adams is from Vancouver and his only connection to Sri Lanka prior to the tsunami was a performance he gave in Colombo. Kushil Gunasekera’s only Canadian connection was a Rotary-sponsored group study visit he led to Canada in 1995. Now there are more ties that bind the two and their respective countries.
After the tsunami struck, Bryan Adams offered his help through the Sri Lankan High Commission in London. The initial Rs 14 million+ (approximately $140,000) raised by auctioning his guitar built a 25-metre swimming pool at FoG’s request. FoG wanted to turn “wild swim strokes” or no swim strokes into an exercise in excellence that would have young people winning swim awards where previously there were none (if people could swim at all). Now there are young people from the village winning national races. A village girl, Dulanjalie, won the 6 mile sea swim in Colombo for two consecutive years and joined the national swim team.
FoG also wanted to show that it would meet donor needs with good reporting and accounting. FoG takes some pride in pointing out that the Bryan Adams funding was used to not just build the promised pool but was handled so carefully that land adjacent was purchased for other sports activities. Bryan Adams responded with a further two years of funding for pool maintenance.
Over the years, FoG has raised $10 million from varied donors, including the Marylebone Cricket Club and US chef Anthony Bourdain. External funding may well be attracted to a winning combination: Kushil Gunasekera, a Sinhalese, teamed up with Muttiah Muralidaran, who is Tamil, and together they formed the FoG. Now FoG benefits from five trustees, three of whom are top cricket players. They work together in the south and the north.
The story about that infamous day that the tsunami struck Seenigama is told with feeling by Kushil Gunasekera in the ancestral home where he was when the first wave struck. It was only a few feet high but enough to sweep away before his eyes elderly village women he knew. Subsequent waves would be much higher and even more devastating in their impact. His ancestral home, since donated to FoG, bears the mark showing the high water of the waves. It is a day he will never forget.
Since the tsunami, FoG activities have gone into overdrive with 20,000 people in 25 villages benefitting from a Seenigama Diving and Training Centre, a Marylebone Cricket Club Centre of Excellence and Sports Academy.
More recently, FoG has gone north to establish a Learning and Empowerment Institute because they recognize the needs of the poor and national unity are island wide. The Government of Sri Lanka made land available in Mankulam, Mullaitivu.
While FoG has benefitted from external and home grown assistance, it guards its independence. There is a strong environmental thrust to FoG’s approach that may caution them from dependence on any one interest group. They have learned the hard way the damage to Seenigama of coral harvesting to make chunam for construction which was the primary livelihood before the tsunami and increased their vulnerability when the waves came in.