An American in Sri Lanka helps the country’s ongoing tsunami recovery efforts, rebuilding villages and lives one birdhouse at a time.
From Haiti, to Chile, to Eastern Turkey, a major earthquake has thus far annexed each month of the year 2010. It’s easy, especially among globetrotters, to take such disasters into our consciousness. When we do, such awareness leads to a greater, healing connection to others.
Journalist, traveler, diver, and California native Sean T. Kelly discovered this in early 2005 when he first tried to assist with Indian Ocean tsunami cleanup and found that organizations were already overwhelmed with volunteers. His answer, nearly one year later, after involvement in a Sri Lankan reef restoration project, was to form his own not-for-profit, P2P Rescue, “P2P” meaning People-to-People. Kelly wanted to directly connect–with a sense of equality–those who want to help to those who are in need.
His idea was to rebuild coastal Sri Lanka one birdhouse at a time. While birds benefit from his efforts, sales from the colorful folk art birdhouses hand-crafted from tsunami salvage have provided, for humans, more than 80 homes, a school, a community and prayer center, and other structures in Venamulla, a coastal village near Ambalangoda on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka that was destroyed in late 2004. “The tsunami went more than a mile inland in Venamulla, maybe close to two, and many people died. Among them, an employee’s grandmother and mother,” said Kelly. “He survived, and even held onto a piece of wood that he later used for one of his first birdhouses.”
Kelly enlisted the design capabilities of renowned Berkeley birdhouse maker Michael Parayno, who traveled with Kelly to Sri Lanka to train a group of local young men to build artful birdhouses to ornithological standard, meaning aesthetics aside, a birdhouse door needs to accommodate a bird’s body. Kelly and Parayno spent a number of days with the Birdboys looking through in-flight magazines featuring architecture and walking through Sri Lanka neighborhoods so each could find his own inspiration. “I’m really impressed with their originality,” Kelly said. “Each birdhouse truly came from the heart of the Birdboy who crafted it.” No two houses are alike, and each is signed by the Birdboy who built it and adorned with a small wooden, hand-painted bird mask (a Sri Lankan symbol for protection) made specifically for the project by artisans in Ambalangoda. The birdhouses are available online and range in price from $30 to $300.
We asked Kelly how he found the birdhouse artists who would become the Birdboys. “Purely by chance,” he said. On the day he arrived in Sri Lanka, he asked to tag along on a trip to Ambalangoda to help deliver supplies to schools. During the trip, he explained why he was in Sri Lanka. “Within an hour of arriving in Ambalangoda, I found myself sitting with the town’s Buddhist leader with an opportunity to address the entire community.” The Birdboys were selected by the spiritual leader to assist Kelly as a sort of self-appointed penance for their previous employment harvesting a sea reef for natural ingredients for paint. “These boys were not only out of work, they blamed themselves and thought their higher power was punishing them for allowing the tsunami to do further damage to their town; a healthy reef might have provided some better protection.”
Kelly pays the Birdboys generously, and keeps P2P Rescue’s overhead low so the majority of each birdhouse sale goes toward community rebuilding projects.
When the project first started, the cost of building a home was about $2,000. At that rate, sales of 20 $100 birdhouses built a family a home. Today, given the demand for materials, labor, and the high-cost of war, the cost of building one home has escalated to about $12,000. Civil war has cost Kelly’s project as well, although he has learned to work around the Sri Lanka government. In light of the rising costs, Kelly has expanded P2P Rescue to include a “Shows for Shelters,” a puppet performance program for children and families living in transitional housing. Kelly has also partnered with Maximus, a 2006 BBC World Challenge award-winning environmental group that creates paper out of elephant dung. (This hygienic, scent-free organic source is increasingly being used around the world by worthy organizations such as South Africa’s Elephant Sanctuary.)
The most difficult part of keeping a peer-to-peer not-for-profit alive, according to Kelly, is the need to be in many places at once. “I’d find myself in the U.S. trying to raise money, and programs would start to atrophy in Sri Lanka. Then I’d be in Sri Lanka, and funds would be gone in a snap. I have plenty of help in Sri Lanka, but in the U.S. it’s terribly difficult to keep people interested in a place they’ve never been to on the other side of the planet.”
So with all the discussion of globetrotting, we had to ask Kelly, why Sri Lanka? Why not local? “In my view, it’s a question of scale or, how large is your community?” he said. “I know many people who prefer to work and act in a way becoming known as ‘hyperlocal,’ and there are plenty of wonderful reasons for focusing directly on providing aid in one’s immediate area. But what some people don’t recognize is that other areas as far away as Sri Lanka have a local impact. It’s far more indirect, but by not providing aid to second- and third-world countries everyone is at greater risk for many problems that first-world countries have enough wealth to solve.” Kelly’s aim, with P2P Rescue, was to help people he did not know, “with no biases and as far away as possible.” Why? “Because I consider the act of helping people because they need it, not because of who they are, to be a most important point when considering a world community.”
The Indian Ocean tsunami took the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people, and cost ten countries billions of dollars in damage. In the face of such loss, Kelly said he has learned a lot about family, friendship, and giving. “Despite being in total poverty, people I had never met before would invite me into their homes and offer me the food from their plates. These are people you can approach at 3 a.m. and knock on their door and they will let you in and feed you with the little food they have.”
Thanks to Kelly, many more Sri Lankans (and birds) now have doors–and homes–to live in.
wandermelon has previously written about another innovative relief effort in Sri Lanka: MicroAid International.
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