Seneca Valley High School senior Hiruni Herat earns good grades, plays clarinet in marching band and works weekends at a donut shop. But beyond a typical teenage life in Cranberry Township, she’s running a nonprofit called the Close to My Heart Foundation to ease poverty in her family’s native Sri Lanka.
Last spring, Hiruni’s friends sat in her living room surrounded by more than 1,000 pairs of spectacles, trying them on while giggling, sorting, cleaning and wrapping them for transport on the family’s 22-hour flight from Pittsburgh to the small island nation.
She collected the used eyeglasses for a free clinic she helped to organize at her grandfather’s house during their trip. The foundation also raised $4,000 to fund the construction of a science lab for the small, rural Palpita Primary School in the town of Pugoda.
“When Hiruni told me, ‘I want to have a nonprofit,’ I assumed it would be when she gets a job and is older. Like, in the future,” joked her mother Dilrukshika Singhabahu, who goes by ‘Dil.’
Hiruni counters: “People always tell you to follow your dreams, so I don’t see why I can’t do that now.”
To set up the foundation she launched in fall 2017, Hiruni bought the book “Nonprofit Kit for Dummies” and the family contacted the Alliance for Nonprofit Resources in nearby Butler for assistance. With help from her parents, she put together a board of directors and a student advisory council.
“Since we’re not 18,” Hiruni said, “they can only be a non-voting member of the board, but I have friends who have become very passionate about this and want to help.”
Hiruni enlisted her friends to call Cranberry restaurants like Chipotle and Denny’s to get them to give the foundation a cut of sales during “dining for dollars” events. She pitched at breakfast meetings to local Rotary Clubs, organized skating fundraisers at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and set up eyeglass donation boxes at Walmart, the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center and Linda Midcap’s Hair Gallery.
Hiruni’s idea started informally when she was eighth grade, with a pen-pal campaign between students from Evans City Middle School and Palpita School. Hiruni had arranged the campaign to fulfill a yearlong gifted program project. Throughout the school year, she collected donations of backpacks and school supplies and then, on her family’s yearly trip to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2015, she delivered them to Palpita students.
She said she was scared at first because she was not fluent enough in Singhala to give a lengthy talk, but her grandfather helped by talking to the students first. Then she joined in. “I started making conversation with students and pretty soon the entire school was sitting around me asking questions about America,” she said. “What struck me was that they weren’t that much different than me and my friends.
“They’re very poor but they’re very grateful for everything they have. I was hooked on helping this school and doing everything I could because they deserve the kind of education that we are getting here.”
In Sri Lanka, nearly half the population lives on fewer than $5 a day, according to the World Bank.
That information led Hiruni to her next project. The outdoor school recently got electricity and needed a photocopier and printer to provide students with study guides and worksheets. Hiruni raised $1,000 and made arrangements for the machine’s purchase and delivery.
When Hiruni returned to Sri Lanka the summer of 2017, along with checking in on the new copy machine at the school, she’d been asked by Palpita’s principal Anoma Sajeewani to design a leadership workshop for students, which she planned and conducted with the help of her parents and grandfather.
“One of the fun things we did was teach them to eat rice and curry with a fork and spoon,” Hiruni said. “Typically, you eat curry with your hands, so we set up this big buffet and sat down to eat lunch together, but you had to eat with the spoons and forks.”
She described it as fun and humorous but also something she said could be beneficial if students are eating a meal with a potential employer.
“They loved the challenge,” she said.
After the photocopier arrived, Principal Sajeewani reported that the passage rate for national exams required at the school increased “from 30 percent to 85 percent,” an improvement credited to the school’s new ability to print past exams for practice.
Compared to wealthier peers, poor children in Sri Lanka ages 15 to 16 are almost three times more likely to leave formal education, according to a 2017 report by The Institute for Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. That can lead to “rampant unemployment,” particularly in the country’s rural areas, according to a 2018 report from the Seattle-based Borgen Project, which studies extreme poverty. In Sri Lanka, more than a quarter of youth ages 15 to 24 are either not employed or not receiving education or work training, according to the report.
Palpita’s new science lab, dedicated on Aug. 1, 2018, is the tangible manifestation of the mission statement Hiruni wrote for her foundation: “Working to provide equal opportunity to underprivileged populations with education, health, and social equality.”
The Palpita Primary School is just past the town crematorium, about a mile and a half from the house of Hiruni’s grandparents, Walter and Indrani Singhabahu. The green cement home sits behind a busy lottery stand on the main road through Pugoda village in Sri Lanka’s Western Province, about 20 miles northeast of the capital city of Colombo. Bands of monkeys roam through king coconut treetops between buildings. The Kelani River flows behind the village, feeding the skinny, sap-seeping trees of Salawa Rubber Plantation and channeling off into sweet-smelling rice paddies.
Driving across a bridge, people can be seen below, bathing and washing laundry and, during the dry season when the river is low, men wade among the protruding rocks panning for tiny bits of gold.
Hiruni’s parents left Sri Lanka in 1994, a month after they married. They moved to the United States, so her dad, Athula, could attend a physics Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati.
Hiruni was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2001. She’s lived in Western Pennsylvania since she was 3, when her father was offered a professorship at Slippery Rock University.
In Sri Lanka, her parents both witnessed the atrocities, chaos and destruction during the country’s brutal 25-year civil war. The war started in 1983 as the Sinhalese majority run government and Tamil separatist insurgents tangled in a chaotic series of battles all over the island country.
Dil’s parents moved to Pugoda after Walter, now 89, took early retirement as superintendent in the national prison system. He retired, in part, because of uprisings inside prisons during the war.
Pugoda was not seeing the same level of violence that was occurring in other parts of the country, which is just more than half the land area of Pennsylvania but contains almost 9 million more people.
In Pugoda in 1988, Walter started a nonprofit to aid residents coping with poverty, together with a Dutch couple he’d met from Galle, a colonial fort city on the southwest coast. They called it Neder Lanka Aloka (meaning Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Light). The organization had several major undertakings, including helping to fund construction of more than 40 homes and identifying local children in financial need to be sponsored in Holland. But the organization’s first project was hosting a free eyeglasses clinic out of Walter’s house.
Why eyeglasses? Although Sri Lanka has a government-funded national healthcare system, there are still many barriers to vision care, particularly in poor rural areas.
One of the largest vision care needs is for inexpensive reading glasses. Uncorrected loss of vision disables reading ability and can correlate directly to loss of income, according to a 2016 report on blindness in aging Sri Lankans.
“Most people at clinics are really poor; they are needing to figure out shelter and food. Forget buying glasses,” said Heidi Weitz, owner of Heidi Optics in downtown Pittsburgh. In the United States, “people just grab them in the grocery stores. I don’t think we understand that level of poverty here.”
Weitz donated 300 pairs of used glasses to Hiruni.
Hiruni took inspiration from her grandfather’s first clinic 30 years ago, as well as her own experience in school.
“I was thinking how at school each year we get our eyes checked to see if we need glasses,” she said. “I was thinking how it would be so hard to go through life or school without my contacts.”
For now, like many American high school seniors, Hiruni is figuring out where she’ll be hitting the books next fall. She’s hoping her residency at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School last July, where she studied Arabic, will help her get into the universities where she plans to apply: American, Brown, Cornell, George Washington and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s already been admitted to the University of Pittsburgh. Her focus will be international and global studies, economics and law.
She’s also already planning for next summer’s trip to Pugoda. She is raising money for a new school, the Keselhenawa Junior School, to buy laptops, add electricity to one of the classrooms for a computer room and also to update the school’s toilets. For Palpita School, she will be meeting with Sri Lankan solar companies to get quotes for installing solar panels at the school.
Her foundation also raised $4,000 to update toilets and showers for a hospital in the village. Construction was recently completed.
While her grandfather waited until retirement to start his nonprofit, Hiruni sees the foundation as her life’s work.
“I plan on doing this for the rest of my life, or as long as I can,” she said.
At one time, she thought she might be a doctor. Her parents were pushing her to focus on math and science and it would be one way to help people.
“But then I started doing this. Now, that’s all I can see myself doing,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be easier once I have a college degree and I’m not a teenager in Cranberry Township, but I’m really excited about it and I can’t wait to see what I can do.”
Heather Mull is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached through her website at www.heathermull.com or at 412-901-1647.
This story was fact-checked by Katie Farnan.