On the first weekend of February 2009, seven secretaries working with the Aitken Spence group embarked on a mission that took them away from their homes into the deep south of Sri Lanka. These ladies who usually sit behind office desks keeping their bosses’ working lives in good order, ventured into the unknown, reaching out to help people they didn’t even know. Led by Daisy Kunanandham, they set out for the Elpitiya area to bring much needed items, and lots of happiness, to the workers and their children on two low country tea estates.
Daisy and her “Dream Team” comprising (in alphabetical order) secretaries Dinali Alexander, Tilaka Fernando, Georgina Felsinger, Honorine Panditha, Savitri Silva and Florence Weerasinghe, were determined to make a difference. Over the months in 2008 they had collected items to distribute on the estates with the object of making life better for the less fortunate.
The mission developed from the aftermath of the tsunami when Daisy, who is the dynamic secretary of Aitken Spence Deputy Chairman/MD, Mr J M S Brito, found herself involved in helping to clear a container from the UK containing items collected for those displaced by the tsunami. Since many of the donated goods were surplus to requirements, Daisy sent letters to her sister secretaries within the group, asking them to assist her in distributing the goods to others in need. The secretaries were so enthusiastic they began collecting other items and through contacts within Aitken Spence Plantations they were able to deliver the goods to workers on two upcountry estates.
This gave the Dream Team the idea of doing more, of making it their own project to assist the needy on plantations in rural areas. They began 2009 by collecting funds so they could buy and distribute exercise books to estate school children. To raise funds they sold greeting cards donated by a well-wisher, and also set aside 50 percent of the funds collected for their own Christmas party to make equipment purchases. They badgered husbands, friends, and even their bosses, to contribute to the dream.
The secretaries set out on that February weekend to estates that had been suggested to them by group plantation managers. They had decided they could be more effective by going to different estates for every project. In this case they took with them four computers for estate vocational centres; football, rugby, netball and badminton sets; 3,900 exercise books, 50 school stationery gift packs awarded to the top 25 pupils of two estate schools; milk powder, linen, toys, vitamins and clothes for the crèche babies; food, drink and confectionary items for 400 children; clothes and linen for all age groups; and dry rations.
Recalling the weekend, the secretaries confessed to feeling humbled at seeing how the little they were doing was making so much difference. “I have never felt so fulfilled in my life,” said one. Another pointed out that, unlike with formal charities that deduct costs, everything contributed for the secretaries’ plantation project went to those in need, not on administration. The secretaries covered their own expenses, even buying things from their own pockets when items ran out.
“The plantation managers are doing such a good job,” said Daisy, “and they welcomed our help.” She praised the management of Elpitiya Plantations and Aitken Spence board member Dr Rohan Fernando in particular, “for making available to the secretaries this opportunity, without which we would have no project.” She also thanked the two estate managers and their families for their very willing help, warm hospitality and support, as well as all secretaries and other employees of the group who made donations in cash or kind.
The Dream Team is now collecting items and donations for their next project to help children on two other plantations within the group. Of course, donations of clothes in good condition are always useful, as are toys and sports equipment but cash is also necessary. They have heard of a plantation school band that has instruments and uniforms but no shoes in which to march, so funds are being sought for that. Another project they would like to help with is the raising of Rs. 500,000 towards the purchase of a second hand coach as a school bus for estate kids who have to walk miles to school every day.
The secretaries in the Dream Team are not the kind of people to sit around and wait until a disaster happens before they do something to help others. Their Plantation Project has enriched their lives as well those of the people they have been able to help. Daisy says modestly that she owes thanks “to the other members of the Dream Team who sacrificed a long and comfortable weekend with their families to bring a lot of joy to some well-deserving but less fortunate children in the Aitken Spence family.”
The secretaries’ dream has become a reality, inspiring others through a genuine, personal concern, and in keeping with the values at the heart of the Aitken Spence brand.
2009 – Ace Magazine Issue I