The effect of formative years on children can never be underestimated. According to Unicef data, from new-born to eight years of age a child’s developing brain is highly responsive to all influences.
Having grown up in the UAE in the warm embrace of a good education system and a nurturing family, Dubai-born Chavez Selvaratnam (25) knows that this impressionable time in his life defined who he is today – a man with a vision to improve the lives of the less privileged.
‘Early childhood education is the most important investment for the future of a society,’ he says. His company The Husk Organization (thehusk.org), alongside two non-profit companies, are currently building a preschool on Mannar Island off the northwest coast of Sri Lanka.
Says Selvaratnam, ‘We want to provide a holistic education for the young children of Mannar Island, to give them the best start to life, instil a deep sense of altruism to grow up compassionately, and kindle a love for learning that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.’
GROWING UP IN THE UAE
The Selvaratnam family came to the UAE in the 1980s. They were into training racehorses. Chavez was born in 1997 in Dubai’s Al Wasl Hospital (now Latifa Hospital) so it was only natural that the youngster learned much about life and horses from his father Gopi Selvaratnam, trainer at Jebel Ali Stables.
Educated at the original Jebel Ali Primary School in Jebel Ali Old Village and, later at The English College secondary school, Chavez was given much support by his large family network, most strongly by his steadfast mum Sadhana.
He left the UAE to study at Royal Holloway University of London in Egham, United Kingdom, for a three-year undergrad degree in Entrepreneurship and Management. While there he became vice-president of the Royal Holloway Polo Club. After leaving university he worked at Park House Stables as head lad (stable yard manager) and pupil assistant for trainer Andrew Balding, in Kingsclere near Newbury, Hampshire.
‘While living in the UAE I met people of all walks of life from all around the world and was exposed to so many stories of their paths. What truly inspired me was the resilience of the Emirati people,’ says Chavez. ‘To see the country that has been formed today from the desert is a show of trust and unity amongst its people for its leaders, and for the vision they had to bring the UAE into the modern world.’
Early in 2021 he moved to Sri Lanka where the family are originally from, and founded The Hüsk Organisation to uplift communities and gain environmental reform in Sri Lanka.
‘I see so much natural potential here. A country with rich history, incredibly fertile land, endless water reserves, the potential to be completely self-reliant, and such warm and intelligent people. Sri Lanka is paradise to me, but sadly because of many systematic issues, be they economic or political, Sri Lanka has not always had it easy,’ says Selvaratnam.
Together with his Austrian partner and Hüsk’s creative director Johanna Klement they joined forces with Bridging Lanka, an NGO registered in Sri Lanka and in Australia, and the Dutch charity Little Leaders Foundation, to build a preschool in Puthukkudiyiruppu village on Mannar Island.
Home to 73,000 people, despite the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 the island continues to suffer with a lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities, ethnic divide, a high suicide rate, and a lack of good educational facilities.
GIFTING KIDS A SOLID FOUNDATION
Last year Selvaratnam visited Jeremy Liyanage, Executive Director of Bridging Lanka which heads the Little Trees Nurtury project in Mannar. The NGO, founded by Liyanage and a group of Sri Lankans from Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and Sinhala backgrounds living in Australia, has been very active in Sri Lanka with projects that include peace reconciliation, building reverse osmosis filtration systems in villages without clean drinking water, a restaurant for war widows to run, a donkey clinic, and animal rescue centre.
‘I saw much poverty in Mannar during the Coronavirus lockdowns. People were hungry, waiting on the roads for something to do. There was no employment. People were sleeping on sand floors in their homes. Drinking water was hard to come by...,’ says Selvaratnam.
He saw that assistance from grassroots level was going to be the best way to help this community. ‘To give children the best possible start to life, to give them a solid foundation to grow from is a gift many of us overlook.’
There are few preschools on the island, with most functioning as day care centres. ‘These are overcrowded and children do not get enough attention. There are classrooms built for 20 children at the most, hosting over 100 kids. Children who aren’t fortunate enough to go to schools stay at home,’ he says.
Bridging Lanka bought one-and-a-half acres of forested land in Puthukkudiyiruppu village.
‘We hope Little Trees Nurtury [will] help unite the divided communities through the children coming together under one roof,’ says Chavez.
The preschool will consist of three buildings for 100 children initially, a playground and nature trails. The children will also interact with animals from Bridging Lanka’s nearby Donkey Clinic and Education Centre (DCEC) and Hendro Animal Rescue Centre; part of the holistic education plan is to encourage a positive attitude towards animals.
Donkeys will also be used to help vulnerable children, adults and children of determination develop life skills via Donkey Assisted Therapy (DAT). This therapy helps them to overcome personal barriers and develop self-esteem, empathy, manage emotions, and deal with stressful situations.
Bridging Lanka and Hüsk want Little Trees Nurtury to be much more than just a preschool. They will set up pedagogic parental counselling programmes (a system of providing support to parents allowing them to manage difficulties that arise with their child’s education) and will train teachers from the community at a local academy. The team will also build an organic vegetable garden onsite for the children to learn from and will unite parents and children from neighbouring Muslim, Christian, and Hindu villages.
$150,000 TO BE RAISED
Little Leaders Foundation (LLF) based in Leiden, The Netherlands, supports children’s education in Sri Lanka by providing funding, and will play a future role in helping bring volunteers to the school. The co-founders Kintan Van Leeuwan and Elisah Sauerbier are friends since junior school days.
Sourcing materials and coping with import restrictions under Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis has been very challenging.
‘We are constantly having to negotiate new prices for cement and building materials as inflation is skyrocketing. Inflation has gone up 58.9 per cent this year and with import restrictions, prices are extremely high and disproportionate due to lack of supply,’ says Chavez.
Nevertheless, the group started constructing Little Trees Nurtury in June this year with a donation of $30,000 from which they bought 500 bags of cement, built about 3,000 cement blocks, laid the foundations for all three school buildings, and constructed a road leading to the preschool. The three organisations plan to raise $150,000 for the entire project, covering the construction and the first year of operation including the teacher training and parent counselling programmes.
Hüsk aims to raise $42,000 through donations.
The Hüsk team is currently based in the Athurugiriya suburb of Colombo. ‘Decisions and systematic change come from the city, so it is important to get those in Colombo and abroad to see the truth of what is happening in rural communities. Being that bridge is important,’ says Chavez.