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Supporting the children of St Patrick's College

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

IT’S SAFE to say that here in Scotland we enjoy our tea—I know I do. While advertisers down through the years have tried to sell it to us with the use of cartoon characters and chimpanzees—both real and of the stuffed variety—they needn’t have bothered as Scots drink an average of four cups a day, which equates to a whopping 22 million cuppas consumed and that’s not even accounting for flavoured teas! However, what most people might not be aware of is where their tea comes from or what the lives are like for those whose job it is to get it into our shops and our homes.

Sri Lanka is one of the biggest tea producing nations in the world and is also our focus country for this year’s World Mission Sunday. The Missio Scotland team were fortunate enough to visit Sri Lanka this year and gain a greater insight into this industry and the country as a whole. The first stop on our was to the Diocese of Kandy, a rural diocese where many of the tea plantations in the country are located. In fact, we were taken into a factory where the tea leaves are processed before we arrived at our destination of Talawakelle and even the humidity outside that those who pick the tea have to contend with wasn’t a patch on the searing heat inside the factory itself.

However, this industry, which employs so many people—like so many more industries within the country—is in crisis. A ban on the use of fertilisers has significantly reduced the production of tea and rice, two of the country’s biggest exports. Tourism, which brings money into the country was affected by the 2019 terrorist attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t help in that regard either. As a result of all this, inflation has risen to 39.1 per cent, there are gas shortages in the country and the cost of electricity has increased by 60 per cent. In the midst of all this, the tea plantation workers, whose daily income amounts to a meagre £1.57 per day, have to try and exist—feeding their families and educating their children—which is becoming harder and harder by the day. Many have ultimately decided to leave the industry to go and work abroad, the downside being a parental void is left in many of the families.

Supporting St Patrick's Sr Mary Thomas, a Comboni Sister based here in Scotland, told us how her fellow sisters were actively engaged in providing an education to the children of tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka and she suggested that the school in which they work in Talawakelle—St Patrick’s College—might benefit from Missio Scotland’s support.

The school was founded in 1937 and at that time boasted a mere 37 pupils. Today, there are more than 900 students—a mixture of Catholics and Hindus—who attend St Patrick’s, almost all of whom are Tamils, a community that hasn’t always had the easiest of times socially and economically in Sri Lanka. Thanks to the involvement of the Comboni Sisters, the school offers an education from Grades 1-13 in either English or Tamil. Being educated in English costs £3.80 per student per month, while Tamil costs £2.50 per student per month.

Approximately 65 per cent of St Patrick’s pupils go on to attend university, so there is no doubt that the school makes a difference in the lives of the children it caters for.

That said, St Patrick’s is not without its issues. Some of the children travel far distances to get to school, which can take upwards of an hour. Transport costs are approximately £15.50 per month, which might not seem a lot, but it can account for a sizeable chunk of a family’s monthly income. Teachers are only paid between £39 and £115 per month. Classroom space is at a premium and on average there are 45 pupils in each class. Sr Agnese Elli, a Comboni Sister who teaches at the school, explained to us the challenges facing the school in greater detail.

“We don’t have enough classrooms,” Sr Agnese explained. “Some are not proper classrooms, some are using the space under the stairs. A former hall has been divided into four classrooms with wooden partitions, which means that there’s a lot of distraction. What we want to do is give these children a better education because they are the future of the country, but in conditions like this it can be difficult for the students to focus on their studies and pay attention to the lessons, because they are distracted.

“The children come from very poor families. Aside from having to pay school fees, travelling long distances and paying for transport too, at home they don’t have enough space to study. They may have to share a room with their siblings or other family members. Many students get up at 3 or 4am to study, while the other family members are still sleeping.

“Due to the economic crisis, many people lost their jobs and families are struggling. So another problem is a lack of proper nutrition. Many arrive at school without having had their breakfast and some don’t bring lunch because they can’t afford it. We have noticed that this has resulted in a drop in their academic performance.

“A lot of these children have a parent who works abroad, so that they can ensure a better future for their children. Some children have both parents working abroad and this isn’t good because when a mother figure isn’t at home, emotional problems arise. So we have children who lack affection, and they’ll say: ‘Sister please give me a hug,’ because they have no parental figures at home and that can’t be replicated by anybody else.”

“We very much believe that this is a mission for us because we are following in the steps of St Daniel Comboni, especially when he said: ‘You have to work among the poorest and most abandoned people,’” Sr Agnese continued. “But he didn’t mean that just in terms of economic poverty, but in every sense of the word. These children lack not only financial help but also family support. We are happy to do that and share in the life of the people here. My mission goes beyond just teaching. Teaching is just a means to reach the children, to understand their situation, how they live, what problems they have, both personal and family.”

Projects with a positive impact

Equipped with this information, Missio Scotland has worked with Sr Agnese and the school’s rector, Fr Dominic Sandanam, to identify and fund two projects that will have a positive impact on the lives of the children who attend St Patrick’s—a nutritional programme and one offering extra tuition after school.

It’s estimated that around 8.3 million people of Sri Lanka’s population of 23 million exist on one meal a day. The UN’s World Food Programme Report states that two in five Sri Lankan households are not getting sufficient nutrition from their diet. As Sr Agnese mentioned, the families—and thus the children who attend St Patrick’s—are affected by these food and nutritional shortages. The nutritional programme supported by Missio Scotland will provide 350 students with a lunch box of rice and curry for six months, working out at around 62p per week per student or £15 per student for that six month period. Hopefully being provided with adequate nutrition will see an improvement in their academic performance.

The after school programme will also be vital in ensuring that the students continue to receive the best education possible, which will hopefully have a transformatory effect on their lives in the future. As previously noted, the schoolchildren often do not have adequate space at home to study in the evening. Added to that is the fact that many of their parents are not educated enough to help them and also they seldom have the money to send their children for extra tuition, which is standard practice in the country. To counteract this, six teachers will provide after school classes throughout the year in three different tea plantation estates—Logie, Palmstern, St Clair—for 90 children, who will also receive stationery and a snack. The total cost to support a pupil taking advantage of the classes for the whole year is just £19.

“When we heard that Missio Scotland was going to support these projects, we were really very grateful, because we need a lot of financial support right now,” Sr Agnese said. “So, we were very happy when we heard Missio Scotland was going to support this part of Sri Lanka.

“I would like to thank Missio Scotland for supporting us and I know that they cannot do that without the generosity of its many donors. So I’d like to thank all of those who donate to Missio Scotland too, because it allows them to reach out to the most needy parts of the world where that support is much appreciated. We pray for all the benefactors. Without your help, your contributions and your generosity, we couldn’t reach out to the many people who have been entrusted to us in our mission.”

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