Much as I shun honors and praises, I am grateful to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for having studied and found to be of service to society the methods of training and youth formation I have been working on for some time, especially in helping the underprivileged youth of Sri Lanka. All those who have rallied round me should see in this Award a public recognition of the worthiness of our work and of their involvement in the cause it serves. For myself and all my supporters, I express humble and very sincere thanks to the Trustees of the Foundation. I pay my respects to the late President Ramon Magsaysay, a man of great heart and wonderful vision, and I congratulate all those who have helped keep the spirit of this great President alive and effective by maintaining so very successfully this fine Foundation. It is a great honor, indeed, for me and my associates to be included in the distinguished fraternity of the Magsaysay Awardees.
As an educator, I started at 17 years of age in a very poor school in southern France—my own country—with a class of 104 lads of various ages and degrees of poverty—poor in the goods of this world, in brain potential and poorer still in parents’ attention. To find those lads were happy only in class indelibly impressed me. The sight of them wasting their time roaming the streets on vacations and coming back to me on Mondays, half wild, prodded me to organize games, work where together we did very simple jobs, Scout camps and excursions. Watching them become interested, keen, resourceful, and helpful to each other, I began thinking that something should be done for poor and abandoned children instead of just blaming them.
When duty took me to teach more fortunate children in Lebanon, England, and Sri Lanka, I managed to run extracurricular activities for “retarded” boys to which large numbers of “outsiders,” or deprived boys, were attracted. Studying their cases, their needs, aspirations and potentialities, I discovered a “bad boy” is made by circumstances, mostly by poverty or rejection by those who should have attended to him. I came to know that given proper chances and care nearly all boys classed as “rejects” or “dangers” would rise to be excellent young men, good husbands and fathers, successful workers, reliable citizens, even heroes. I also saw that even the type of education we were imparting to the better off was too academic and impractical. My quest for something different to help the unfortunate led me to conclude that homes, centers, refuges—call them as you like—must be created where embittered and frustrated youths could find occupation, guidance and training, where men of dedication and vision could be their understanding friends and helpers, share their work, food, sports, art and social life, love them and create around them the atmosphere, the society, the family spirit needed to gain their sympathetic involvement.
In my experience, a study of any delinquency case will uncover a desire for “activity,” for “participation,” for “doing.” I had noted such youngsters, even if they cannot express it, aspire for a way of life, not necessarily the easier one, which will allow them to fulfill themselves and even be in a position to help others—an old, bedridden mother, younger brothers or sisters they know to be in distress, or a needy friend met when they themselves ran the streets. Indirectly, it is an aspiration to serve the larger community, the country.
Feeling I must be ready to attend to these inner good dispositions of underprivileged children, I planned a home where such youths would be provided with opportunities to improve themselves. They would be trained in jobs in agriculture, industries, trades. They would be further educated and their character formed. They would be given a sense of duty, honesty, love for work well done. They would be given a proper vision of what life truly is. They would be shown the correct way to self-sufficiency and proper use of time and money. They would be trained to civic life, to love others and country. Little by little they would be made to realize they have a good role to play. When, at long last, I was asked to set up a home for orphans and uncared for youths, my joy knew no bounds. There were to be many difficulties and there were failures, but we had the will and found a way.
At the start we had the good fortune of the approval and encouragement of the then Provincial of the De La Salle Brothers in Sri Lanka, Very Rev. Bro. Vincent Joseph; of His Eminence Cardinal Cooray of Colombo; of the government of Sri Lanka through the ministers of Social Services, Industries and Agriculture; of the then Director of Agriculture, Dr. W. Joachim. Similar support came from successive Provincials, Rev. Bros. Lawrence and Flavian, and especially the Assistant Superior General of the De La Salle Brothers for Asia, the Very Rev. Bro. Michael Jacques who is with us today deputizing for the Superior General himself, Very Rev. Bro. Pablo-Manuel. Throughout the years I have been privileged to have the assistance of exceptional young men. One who started with me, Rev. Bro. Philip, is still there and has endeared himself to all by his devotion and the efficiency he brings to every aspect of our campus work. Then there is the chorus of friends and philanthropic organizations from Sri Lanka and many countries who have helped us generously. They all share this Award.
Though Diyagala Boys’ Town was meticulously prepared in all its details, our work at the beginning was very hard indeed. We three animators and 25 half-starved boys of all castes and creeds lived together in cadjan sheds, cleared jungle, leveled land, grew a few vegetables, reared poultry, pigs and goats, cooked our food and cut bricks and cabouks for our initial buildings. But the boys could see and take pride in the town we were building ourselves and very soon we were a family community where each had a role. Before the year ended help came from international organizations—like MISEREOR of West Germany—to equip workshops and build kitchens, refectories and dormitories according to plan. Most encouraging was to see the youngsters accept the hardships and discipline because they felt they were fast improving their chances in life. Hope had been restored to them. What matters is that the boy feels he is loved, that he is wanted, that he is given responsibility and that he is trusted. These are the thirsts and aspirations of youth today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. They are those of underprivileged children most acutely. It is the duty of our personnel, as it should be of all those wishing to achieve success with underprivileged children, to be firm but lavish with encouragement; to be experts in instruction, training, guidance; to love to work in association with the boys, and to share in dialogue, planning, execution and evaluation of results. They must be organizers, animators and guides but without excluding the boys themselves. Thus, in the true sense of service each is contributing, defining together the reasons for success or failure, suggesting improvement, working toward shared goals, and understanding his own duty and the common good. Our system—theoretical and perhaps difficult as it may seem—is both simple and effective. It is a training for involvement and responsibility. Today we feel very happy that the Foundation has given the Award for Public Service to my humble self. This is a wonderful encouragement to me and my associates and helpers.