After a year of fundraising and campaigning, Melissa Day’s efforts to start a ‘tea revolution’ by raising awareness about how many mass market leaves are produced, and the conditions in which workers often live, are still going strong. Sheena Grant reports
She’s raised almost £5,000 during a year-long campaign to buy a school bus and help improve the life chances of some of the poorest people on the planet, but Melissa Day’s charity challenge is far from over.
Melissa, who lives in Ipswich, plans to continue raising funds towards her £12,000 target in 2016 and will also carry on campaigning to raise awareness about the conditions endured by many tea estate workers.
The 30-year-old is capping an incredible few months with plans for a trip to Sri Lanka, where she hopes to visit family members she didn’t know she had until just six years ago.
Melissa was adopted by a British couple in Sri Lanka as a baby and grew up in the UK. She was reunited with her birth family − including her mother, grandmother, aunt and two younger brothers − only a quarter of a century later, after tracking them down with little more to go on than a photograph taken at the Colombo convent where she was born: a photo that, unbeknown to Melissa, her mother had also cherished during the years they were apart. Her birth family were living in grinding poverty on a tea estate, with little hope of ever escaping their situation. Melissa resolved to try to help not just her family but the whole community, and linked up with a charity called Tea Leaf Vision, which runs education programmes to improve the life chances of young people from tea estate communities. So began her efforts to raise £12,000 to buy Tea Leaf Vision a school bus.
Tea Leaf Vision was founded after honeymooning couple Tim Pare and Yasmene Shah visited Sri Lanka and were shocked at conditions on some of the country’s tea plantations, where a high percentage of men are alcoholics, women suffer domestic violence and suicide rates are the fourth-highest in the world. Education is seen as a way out but teaching standards at tea plantation schools are often poor and students fail exams, continuing the cycle of hopelessness.
Tea Leaf Vision offers a free, full-time course for 18- to 24-year-olds from more than 20 plantations. The students learn English, IT skills and personal development − more than two thirds go on to higher education or get a job off the plantation. The students also act as “change agents” within their communities, providing English education to primary schools on the plantations.
Melissa’s brother, Ashok, 25, has just completed Tea Leaf Vision’s English Diploma Programme.
“Ashok has gained a Merit pass, which is the second-highest grade, on the English Diploma, which includes English grammar, speech and advocacy, IT, business and success and ethics,” says Melissa. “I am incredibly proud of him and all of his hard work.”
Her youngest brother, Arun, also started the Tea Leaf Vision course but was not able to complete it due to mental health issues that are common on the plantations.
“Arun is still pursuing a cultivation business – growing and selling vegetables,” says Melissa. “Although it has been a tough year – the heavy rain washed away his entire crop − Arun still wants to continue with his business. I am also incredibly proud of him and am looking at ways to help him protect future crops.”
Tea Leaf Vision founder Tim Pare added: “Ashok did really well and got a Merit pass in his diploma. This is the second-highest grade and a real tribute to a lad who has been out of education for a while and has limited English − not forgetting that he was boarding away from family.”
Melissa has so far raised a total of £4,665 towards her £12,000 target to buy a school bus for Tea Leaf Vision.
She says: “I am determined to reach the full amount in 2016. The first in a line-up of fundraising events during the year is a Curry & Quiz Night at Seckford Golf Club on Saturday, March 26 at 7pm.
“I’m also incredibly grateful for the support last year of Sarah Brown, wife of (former Prime Minister) Gordon Brown, who made it possible for the plight of tea pickers and the poor-quality education their children often receive to be put onto a global platform through her ‘A World at School’ campaign. This was a significant step in raising awareness around the complex issues faced by plantation workers in Sri Lanka.
“The tea revolution will keep going in 2016.” (Courtesy East Anglian Daily Times)