Tea Leaf Trust in Sri Lanka lifts tea estate communities out of extreme poverty by running educational programs for young people to empower them and give them the knowledge they need to succeed.
CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
“The resilience. The tenacity. The talent, the optimism, the joy that we see at our centers is emotional,” said Tea Leaf Trust founder Tim Pare. “The truth is, we started Tea Leaf Trust because it’s not okay, is it? People should not be living in poverty like this.”
In 2007, Pare and his wife were vacationing in Sri Lanka for their honeymoon for which they stayed in a beautiful accommodation called the “Tea Factory Hotel.” The surrounding community, however, did not match the pristine, luxurious hotel the newlyweds were staying in.
Pare was disheartened by what he saw, so he took it upon himself to venture to the front desk and ask what they were doing about these issues. The manager just so happened to be there. He explained they were using donations from hotel guests to paint the line rooms green. Line rooms are forms of housing that were built by the British and are only 12 x 14ft where multiple families live, share a kitchen and outdoor toilet.
“They said that it was for the ‘benefit of the community.’ I thought ‘hold on a minute, that’s for camouflage. That is hiding the poverty so that the guests of the hotel see a nicer view.’”
Pare told the manager about ways he thought that money could be put to much better use.
“I said, ‘you take your money and you employ an English teacher and the English teacher works with your young people. Then, you can employ your young people. You can not only win environmental awards for sustainability of architecture and of the tea factory but you can actually have a sustainable story. Where the community is nourished by the tips, the remittance, the wages, from where they work and they own it.’”
Pare thought this was a brilliant idea. To his surprise, the manager said “You’re British. This is your fault. You do it.” To which he responded “Okay then, I will.” This is how Tea Leaf Trust was born.
The manager said this because systematically, the tea estate workers are kept in their low-paying jobs. A group known as the “Up-Country Tamils” were brought by the British to Sri Lanka nearly 200 years ago specifically to pick tea. This group was from Southern India, in the midst of a famine. They were told that if they went to pick tea, they would have a better life. 1/3 of them passed away en route. They were deliberately set up in pockets of isolated communities because the tea estates are vast and that meant they couldn’t mobilize. Technically they were “better off,” as they were no longer in famine, however, they were in indentured labor. Pare feels that rather than labeling it as “colonial guilt,” he feels he has a “colonial responsibility” to better the lives of those living on the tea estates in Sri Lanka.
“The salaries are so low,” Pare said.
“There are so many conditions around them. If they work for a day and they pick the ‘daily norm,’ which is the normal number of kilos expected by that tea plantation manager, they make about 1,000 rupees (about USD $3.3 or £2.7.) However, that’s not locked in. If they don’t work at least 75% of the days that are offered by the tea estate management, every single day they have worked reduces their salary. If they don’t pick the daily norm, they get half salary.”
The mix of low salary and poor education keeps tea estate workers in a vicious cycle. Educators are hired to teach subjects they didn’t pass themselves in these rural schools so that children on the estates are not able to learn adequately. Only 11% of people in Sri Lanka who want to go to university and have the qualifications can actually receive a place in a school. The quota from the tea estates is intentionally low. Due to the lower levels of education, limited resources and broken system in the government, 45% of the students who come to Tea Leaf Trust are considering or carrying out self-harm and 25% are ideating suicide. By the end of their time at Tea Leaf Trust, these numbers drastically decrease.
“In their government schools they have teachers teaching them who don’t know the subject,” Pare said. “So, because they don’t know the subject, they don’t allow students to ask questions in their class. They scold them and hit them if they ask questions because they don’t know the answer themselves.”
The teachers will go over 75% of the curriculum in government school but save 25% for private courses in which the poor families will have to pay for. Not everyone can afford this, in fact, most cannot. The teachers will not admit to the parents that they haven’t taught the full curriculum, instead they’ll say that all the information have been given the child to secure a spot in a university.
Therefore, when the children don’t secure a spot, it seems as though it is their fault.
“Suddenly they go overnight from being this hope, to being an ‘incredible failure,’” Pare said. “That’s when we often pick them up and they come to us.”
Tea Leaf Trust runs a one-year full-time diploma for students coming out of the broken education system. This program teaches them the skills they need to pursue a career and lift their families out of poverty and eventually out of the tea estates. In their first year, they had 111 students with only 50% being from the tea estates. The reasoning for this was because in order to send their children to Tea Leaf Trust, families would have to give up a year of the child’s salary and pay for their bus fare to get to school. They wanted to ensure that the students coming out of this program were as successful as they hoped for their child to be. Pare’s institution proved itself rather quickly and has grown rapidly ever since.
“If we fast forward 13 years, we no longer advertise. We had 379 applications for 185 places. A new center we just set up has 50 places but has 61 students,” Pare said. “We said to the parents ‘genuinely, there are no seats. There is no space and we have no chairs,’ and the parents said ‘Okay, we will come tomorrow and bring a chair.’”
That is how impactful this program has been. They now have waiting lists of students hoping to be educated and five centers in which they teach their courses.
“In one of our big centers we have 185 full-time 18 to 26-year-old students of whom about 90% are from the tea estates,” Pare said. “During the year we have two aims: one aim is to make them employable. The second one is to make them emotionally resilient ethical leaders in their own communities.”
The students even take a course called “Success and Ethics,” in which they build a series of healthy habits with success in mind. With over 2,000 graduates, Tea Leaf Trust has made a great impact on the tea estates of Sri Lanka. Aside from the 18-26 age range, they also run a children’s English program in which their older students are being taught how to teach basic English to kids. With this, they teach over 2,300 children free English classes. This makes for a sustainable program that elevates their community as a whole.
With the Pare’s efforts to help those working on the tea estates in Sri Lanka, 39,182 children and young people have been educated, 80% of Sri Lankan youth progress to employment or further education and 349,397 members of the tea estate community are supported by youth alumni. To support Tea Leaf Trust, you can donate to their cause or spread the word by sharing their website or social media.