When tea can leave a bitter taste

Melissa Day and her mother reunited at the spot where she would feed her infant before she was adopt

Melissa Day and her mother reunited at the spot where she would feed her infant before she was adopted - Credit: Archant

Last month, Ealife told the moving story of Melissa Day, who is aiming to raise £12,000 in 2015 for a charity working to improve Sri Lankan tea workers’ lives. In the first of a series of updates, she tells Sheena Grant how she’s getting on.

Melissa Day's brothers, Ashok and Arun, who have just started an education programme run by Tea Leaf

Melissa Day's brothers, Ashok and Arun, who have just started an education programme run by Tea Leaf Vision - Credit: Archant

It’s a long way from Suffolk to Sri Lanka but campaigner Melissa Day has discovered that despite being separated by vast oceans, continents and cultures the two places have some strong connections.

Take, for instance, the Felixstowe woman whose husband was based on the Indian Ocean island during the Second World War, or the local man who was a chef on a ship bringing tea back to Britain.

They were all eager to tell their stories to Melissa when she visited St John’s United Reformed Church in Felixstowe to talk about the hardships faced by Sri Lankan tea plantation workers and her efforts to raise £12,000 to buy a school bus for the charity Tea Leaf Vision. In fact, they were so outraged when they learned the conditions many tea pickers live and work in that they were almost ready to forsake their daily cuppa.

Melissa’s year-long fundraising campaign came about after she was reunited with her birth family, who, she discovered, live in poverty on one of the country’s tea plantations.

Melissa was adopted as a baby in Sri Lanka and grew up in Britain. For decades the only link she had with her past was a photo of her at just a few weeks old, with her birth mother in a Colombo adoption centre. It wasn’t until 2009 that Melissa was reunited with her mother, who, unbeknown to her, also cherished the same picture.

Although the reunion ? and the discovery that she had two younger brothers and a large extended family – brought great joy, it also left Melissa, who lives in Ipswich, carrying a huge burden. How could she help her family and the wider community, who had little hope of ever escaping their poverty and lack of education?

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It was only when Melissa, 29, discovered Tea Leaf Vision, a charity set up by a honeymooning couple shocked by the conditions tea workers live in, that things began to look up. Melissa’s brothers, Ashok, 24, and Arun, 21, have just started on an 11-month English diploma programme run by the charity.

Arun has told managers running the course that his ambition is to talk to his sister in English. “When I received that message from Sutharshan, the charity’s IT manager, it brought tears to my eyes,” she says.

Meanwhile, St John’s church members in Felixstowe are kicking off Melissa’s fundraising with a collection.

“They were so fired up to help in some way and it was really touching,” says Melissa. “I’ve visited the church twice now. After my first talk at least five people came up to me and told me about their stories of how they were connected with Sri Lanka.”

The Rev Ivor Smith said Melissa’s story had a powerful effect on the congregation. “To be reminded of what the actual cost is of a cup of tea or a T-shirt or a pair of jeans ? in human, not materialistic, terms ? is important for those of us in richer countries. To work in conditions of hardship and have very few, if any, rights and still struggle to have a basic standard of life could bring about a bitterness and self-centred survivalism. But to hear of Melissa’s family managing to do this with dignity and look to plan for a better future for the next generation was humbling and a challenge to all who listened.”

Daphne Savage, a lay preacher at the church, said she found Melissa’s story both fascinating and shocking.

“I had the mistaken belief that tea workers had reasonable working conditions,” she said. “However, listening to Melissa tell her moving story, I realised that the people who work so hard to produce my much-loved daily cuppa are treated poorly and live in slum conditions, many without running water in their shacks. Melissa talking about her birth family made the situation even more real, as did her passion to help both her own family and other workers. As well as helping Melissa to achieve her plans, I felt a social media campaign should be mounted. It would only take a week or two of reduced sales to make the companies listen. I also hope that other churches and organisations will invite Melissa to speak to them and be as inspired as I was to support her.”

Helen Smith, another member of the congregation, had a personal connection with Sri Lanka as her husband was actually stationed in the same area as Melissa’s family live. She said: “During the war against Japan, my husband was injured in the Burmese jungle. On discharge from hospital in India he was posted to Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Headquarters in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He took every opportunity during his off-duty periods to see as much of the island as he could because he found it so beautiful. Sadly, his one wish to take me to share his experiences never came about.”

The 52-seat bus Melissa hopes to buy for Tea Leaf Vision would be used to transport students from the centre to their homes, for school trips and community placements. It would also be used for private hire at weekends and holidays. To donate, visit www.virginmoneygiving.com/Melissa-Day, or alternatively you can donate £10 through a Text Giving Service: text ABCD15 text to 70070.

Not everyone’s cup of tea

Tea Leaf Vision was formed after a honeymoon visit to Sri Lanka by Tim Pare and Yasmene Shah revealed that behind the picture postcards of smiling young women plucking tea was hidden a story of entrenched hardship and hopelessness.

The couple realised that the cycle of poverty was fuelled by a lack of quality education and, determined to make a difference, left the UK and moved to Sri Lanka to provide vocational education to youngsters from tea estate communities. Students who have completed courses also act as “change agents”, or role models, in their communities.

Many tea workers live off less than $1 a day, which the UN categorises as extreme poverty. Housing standards are poor, with many homes affected by flooding and landslides. An outside water tap serves the community and water is available for just 30 minutes a day. Four families share a toilet.

Due to the terrible conditions in which they live, with few means to improve their lives, there are high rates of alcoholism, suicide, domestic and sexual violence.

For more information visit www.tealeafvision.com. For more information about ethically-sourced tea visit www.ethicalteapartnership.org