One man’s vision has brought light to lives across Sri Lanka
Prolific author and airline captain Elmo Jayawardene is a man with a mission; not only to write books and fly aeroplanes, but to alleviate poverty in his homeland, Sri Lanka.
In 1995, he formed an organization modelled on the belief that every person could do something to help another. It was called AFLAC, acronym for Association for Lighting a Candle, based on the maxim: ‘It is better by far to light one solitary candle than to curse the darkness.’
‘I travelled a very hard road as a young person, and left school at 17 to become a bread winner,’ says Elmo. ‘I made it to somewhere in life. Now it’s payback time ñ I cannot finish my days on this planet and say I flew big jet aeroplanes and wrote books. There has to be something more meaningful ñ AFAC is that.’
Over the past 13 years, AFLAC has brought light into the hearts and homes of thousands of poor people across Sri Lanka. The organization acts as an intermediary between donors and the needy, soliciting and chanelling funds into five streams: education, health, housing, food and clothing. It has built up a significant donor network stretching across the world.
‘We started AFLAC with SL Rs. 6,000 (approximately HK$435) in 1995. Now it has 20 branches in 20 cities around the world,’ he says. ‘We have more than 700 volunteers working from all walks of life.’
The assistance it has attracted has educated young people, fed and clothed families, provided treatment and beds to cancer patients, provided education for the hearing impaired, built libraries and replaced mud huts with brick houses. In the field of education, for example, it has helped more than 860 young people get either high school or university education.
After the 2004 tsunami, which affected a substantial section of the country’s coastal regions, AFLAC fostered a programme, Swim for Safety, to teach school children to swim, to ease their fears of water caused by the disaster and to provide them with a means to handle future disasters.
‘A lot of children died in the tsunami because they did not know how to swim,’ he says. ‘In Sri Lanka, more than 90 percent of people do not know how to swim; the reason is there are no public swimming pools available to the poor, and they cannot afford to pay for swimming classes.’
‘The children who come to learn to swim cannot even afford a swim suit ñ but now they know to swim.’
Last year, Swim for Safety was initiated at schools in the coastal towns of Moratuwa and Kalutara. Not only did 1,200 students learn to swim 25 metres and face challenging situations in the water, but AFLAC also built a swimming pool in a school in Moratuwa. The programme is earmarked to spread to other areas. Crossroads from Hong Kong donated 800 swimsuits to the project and is expected to provide more this year.
An important aspect of AFLAC is that no part of any donation received is reserved for administration costs. All administrative expenses are borne by the executive committee and participants as part of their own contributions to AFLAC. All donations from individuals are channeled directly to recipients without any form of dilution.
Due to this policy, AFLAC’s biggest challenge is finding money for administration. ‘AFLAC does not dilute a cent from a sponsorship or a donation for administration,’ says Elmo. ‘Though volunteers make up 99 percent of the AFLAC work force, we still have to run an office with 14 staff, and we have office administrative expenses. Total AFLAC administrative expenditure has been less than 4 percent in the last 13 years. How we did it was by printing and selling greeting cards every year and my writing books and articles and using that money for administrative expenses. Each Branch President and those associated with AFLAC cover their own expenses.’
AFLAC’s branch in Hong Kong, for example, is co-ordinated by Jaliya and Tehani Pilimatalawwe. They joined AFLAC after a chance meeting with Elmo in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s philanthropy has assisted in many AFLAC projects, from building homes for tsunami victims to giving Swim for Safety students swimsuits. Jaliya says many sponsors have stepped in to sponsor AFLAC’s visually handicapped university students.
In creating AFLAC, Elmo’s family has rallied around him in support. Dil, his wife, is the pivot of AFLAC. ‘She handles everything − she does the mopping operation,’ says Elmo. Dil is Director and Executive Secretary of AFLAC.
Son Mevan who works for Goldman Sachs in Melbourne, Australia, is AFLAC’s Australasia President. After the tsunami struck Sri Lanka, Mevan took nine months off from his job (then in an IT firm) to lead AFLAC’s tsunami work in Sri Lanka. His wife Abirami is Melbourne Branch President. Meanwhile, daughter Dineli and her husband Roshan run St Joseph’s Home for Hearing Impaired Children, AFLAC’s project in Kuliyapitiya.
AFLAC’s success to date is also grounded on good management and transparency. Audit firm BR de Silva does AFLAC’s books, and the balance sheet can be seen on online. Since 1995, AFLAC has spent over Rs. 140 million on projects in contrast to the Rs. 3.68 million on administration. This model of sound management made it a feature of Forbes magazine.
Elmo, a former Singapore Airlines captain, keeps in touch with his flying skills by occasionally mentoring young pilots. He continues to lead an exemplary life. The author of numerous titles, he recently launched a new book, Rainbows in Braille. A family man, he works closely with his wife and children. He takes care of his health, jogging almost daily, and taking walks with Dil.
On balancing his many commitments, Elmo says: ‘I am very good at time management. One thing I never do is postpone. I also am quite good at allocating tasks to the right people and clearly defining their responsibilities and making sure they live up to them. I also think I am blessed with excellent health and a ‘die hard’ commitment to anything I do.’
His perseverance has fired AFLAC’s candle, illuminating the lives of those in need, and attracting the goodwill of the world.
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Edition of Positive News.