Author and East-West Center professor Stuart Coleman poses with children in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Coleman was part of a Hawaii team that left in June to build homes for poverty-stricken villagers.
Service trip served him,
Helping a Sri Lankan village
put in practice the lecturer’s
theories on volunteering
In June, Stuart Coleman left for Sri Lanka expecting to change lives. A month later, he came back to Honolulu a changed man.
"It was not just occasional charity, but giving a part of yourself," he said last week as he readied his syllabus for a leadership class he teaches at the East-West Center.
Coleman was part of a 10-person Hawaii team that participated in the Habitat for Humanity's "Global Village" program in the Sri Lankan town of Anuradhapura, building three brick homes for poverty-stricken villagers.
The experience is something the teacher, who touts the virtues of service learning, plans to bring to his classroom lectures as he tries to convince students that helping others does not always mean donating money. "This was a good opportunity to put theory into practice," he said with a laugh.
East-West Center student Kathy Tran put the trip together, expecting to help those devastated by the December tsunami that killed thousands in Sri Lanka. Instead, the group was sent to a village whose poverty had long predated the massive disaster and shows no signs of abating.
In some ways, Coleman said, that made the trip more poignant.
"Poverty and homelessness is the real issue," he said, "whether it's caused by extreme poverty or a tsunami."
Before the team participants left Honolulu, they raised $10,300 to help build the shelters and cover their own in-country transportation and accommodation costs. Except for Coleman, all of the volunteers were East-West Center or University of Hawaii-Manoa students.
Coleman, an author who hopes to write about his experiences in Sri Lanka, said the group quickly bonded with the local villagers, who were surprised that the students and teacher had come so far to help build homes. "They were just so gracious," he said. "It was really an exercise in communal learning."
And part of the participants' education was learning how to become home builders nearly overnight.
"We definitely got blisters on our hand early on and were just exhausted each day," Coleman said. "But we were pretty quick studies."
Coleman said that near the end of the trip, he and his teammates attended a festival celebrating the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago. More than 50,000 pilgrims came to the ancient city, the country's former capital, to participate.
Many prayed for family members and friends who were victims of the December tsunami.
"In a way we felt like pilgrims over there," Coleman said. "It was a very important pilgrimage for each of us, in our own way."
For more information on Habitat for Humanity's "Global Village" program, go to the organization's Web site at www.habitat.org/gv.