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Why Sri Lanka?

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Nikhil Gunaratnam works with young volunteers to connect PVC at Sivam’s house. | Benjamin Weatherston

Nikhil Gunaratnam works with young volunteers to connect PVC at Sivam’s house. | Benjamin Weatherston

Ann Arborites find meaning of community in outreach

Stories compiled and photos
by Benjamin Weatherston

I met Dr. Naresh Gunaratnam more than a decade ago while working at St. Joes. I was in the Marketing Department and he was a doctor there who was always eager to push the boundaries of my job description to serve the greater good. Whenever he came into my office I knew two things were going to happen: I was going to get in trouble with my boss and people’s lives were going to be improved. Over the years we tackled topics ranging from esophageal cancer to one-of-a-kind experimental treatments. And even though I’m just a photographer and he’s the doctor, it felt like we were in it together.

One such meeting was about an orphanage in Sri Lanka. The 2004 tsunami had just ravaged the small, war-torn island off the southeastern coast of India and we worked on a photo presentation to make a pitch to a potential donor. I saw images of girls living and learning next to an ocean that just tried to destroy them. That day the cry for help fell on deaf ears but no one could have imagined that years later, the bond between Ann Arbor and Sri Lanka would be more like family than philanthropy.

It took a while to make sense of the connection. The first question everyone asks is, “Why Sri Lanka?” While it might seem like the obvious answer is that Naresh is from there, the truth is much more like real life. Grace Care Center has a funny way of taking people on the periphery and pulling them in, and sometimes those people give their whole hearts. Small connections become vital partnerships and if there’s one thing Ann Arbor is good at, it’s connections. A coworker at the hospital decides to lead a telemedicine pilot program. A Rotary connection leads to grant writing for a hospitality training facility. A group of high school girls start Skyping for a school report and develop lifelong relationships. And about the time it starts making sense, you stop needing it to make sense.

Over 100 Ann Arborites have made the trip to Grace Care Center and hundreds more have helped through small fundraising efforts. This July, 53 people traveled there to offer help and I went along to create images that might help tell the story. Some are doctors, some are teachers. Some went to offer business advice, some went to fix plumbing. Entire families came with children from five different Ann Arbor schools. Everybody was different and had different gifts to give but we were all in it together.

The lesson learned from that failed, fateful pitch was that you don’t need to run after a few rich donors if you empower a community to see themselves as owners.

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