Tea Leaf Trust's Blog

Tea Leaf Trust: Changing Lives in the Tea Estates

I imagine many of us have children or nieces and nephews. I’d like to ask you to picture them at school in a class of 20. Out of this number, think about how many live in homes where domestic violence is a regular occurrence – at our school, in any class, in any year this number would be at least 16 out of 20.
There are 196 countries in the world. Sri Lanka has the 4th highest rate of suicide. Maskeliya, where we are based, is a hot spot within Sri Lanka. Finally, in a country where only 6.6% of the 20 million population live in extreme poverty, 80% of our students live on less than $1 a day.
But it is not just the multi-layered social issues, or the grinding poverty… this is only half of the problem… it is also the poverty of hope. In a country where businesses operate in the English language, only 2 out of 25 English teachers in our local government schools can speak any English at all – so what hope is there?
You see, the British brought Indian-origin Tamils to Sri Lanka 150 years ago for the express purpose of picking tea. An uneducated workforce, fleeing a famine in South India… a third of them died on the journey and the rest were thensettled into isolated communities in remote tea estates. Here they remain, in miserable rural slums, not quite slavery, but deliberate systemic servitude.
On our honeymoon in 2007, Yas and I spent one night at a hotel on a tea estate. We went for an early morning walk and took a left instead of the recommended right – we left 15 hours after arriving having made a promise to come back and start a school.
Just over a year later, we returned and spent the next 4 years establishing a school to serve young people and children of tea estate communities.
Fast forward and the school is now two schools and our students are our teachers and we are replicating our model into more tea estate communities.
So what do we do… we run free, one-year full-time diploma for 150 18 to 24 year olds to give them the skills to have choices and to change their communities for the better. Alongside English Speech and Grammar, I.T and Business, we teach a subject called Ethics that develops coping strategies, and strong emotional health. Students sign-up for the English but graduate stating that it is this class that has changed their lives.
We offer our diplomas for free, but there is a catch. In exchange, every week our 150 main diploma students, managed by our 20 Interns teach Basic English to over 1,500 children for free – a train the trainer project with amazing results. The effect of this is obvious for the children who access the classes, but more important is the difference it makes to our students.
After joining our school at rock bottom, and being seen by the community as failures having not achieved the grades for university… teaching transforms students. They become role models. Their community call them ‘teacher’ and the children knock on their door asking for help.
The diploma course is tried and tested… and works.
In 2013 World Vision International recognised our charity as one of the top three educational programmes in the country.
In 2016 an external evaluation conducted by our main funder, Lebara Foundation, detailed Tea Leaf Trust as being top of their 13 national projects across every single indicator.
We have run courses for over 13,000 beneficiaries since we opened in 2010, but how we know it works?
80% of graduates are in full-time employment, training or further education within a year.
The rate of unemployment amongst those we contacted last year stood at 5%, well below the national average of 22%.
Our students volunteer nearly 17,500 hours of service helping over 80,000 community members (please do ask about this number)
The saddest but perhaps most compelling indicator of our success is that of our nearly 1,000 alumni, only 2 have committed suicide. The expected number would have been over 30.
We would appreciate any size of donation, to help us continue our work.

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