A snapshot of my work in Sri Lanka

There was a feature done on me and my work in Sri Lanka recently, which I have been meaning to share but kept forgetting to do so!  Here you go, enjoy.

A Business Savvy Global Citizen Volunteers in Sri Lanka
Kate Coffey takes 25 years of business acumen to Sri Lanka

Growing up in a small town in southern Ireland, Kate Coffey dreamed of visiting far off places. These big dreams, along with Kate’s intellect, business acumen and passion for volunteering are what led Kate from Ireland to Canada to Nepal and to Sri Lanka, where she volunteered with USAID’s VEGA/BIZ+ program.

An impressive financial career used for good

Kate spent 25+ years working as a senior business strategist for large investment management firms. Kate credits her success to having common sense, being a quick learner and having an ability to work with all kinds of people. Though her career was demanding, she still found time to pursue other passions like supporting the arts and her local community, volunteering and traveling. In 2012, she was able to do both at the same time.

“After I got back from my first trip to Nepal, I knew I wanted to find a way back. I put in my one year notice,” says Kate.

In 2013, Kate resigned from her permanent corporate position for a new adventure. She matched with a volunteer opportunity at the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center (SIRC) in Nepal, where she helped coordinate fundraising efforts, coaching and mentoring staff as well as creating a staff response process to spinal cord injuries after the 2015 earthquakes.

Business development support in Sri Lanka
Kate’s most recent stint has been nine months spent volunteering in Sri Lanka with the VEGA/BIZ+ program. Funded by USAID and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, this program provides matching grants to small businesses looking to increase productivity and create job opportunities and incomes for people in their communities.

BIZ+ not only supports these businesses with financial support, but also with technical and business assistance to set them up for long-term success. This is where Kate comes in. With many years of experience analyzing and coaching businesses, Kate uses her expertise to support four BIZ+ businesses in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces: a rice flour mill, a polybag manufacturer, an heirloom rice producer and a garment factory.

A day in Kate’s Sri Lanka life
When Kate first arrives at the Agash Garment Factory for the day, she is all smiles. She points to neatly stacked and labeled boxes in the corner. “Look how organized they are!” Kate exclaims in her Irish Canadian accent. “It’s things like that that help me see that the trainings are being used.”

Agash is located in Jaffna, the main city in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, many business owners like Agash’s Muruganantham lost their jobs, businesses, home and more due to the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war. Getting reestablished wasn’t easy. Muruganantham, who designs and sews men’s clothing, got his garment factory back on its feet in 2010, but he struggled to grow his business. Shortly after opening, VEGA BIZ+ provided a matching grant to Agash to purchase sewing machines, solar panels, materials and labor to expand the factory.

During this time, Kate and BIZ+ staff regularly provided in person coaching, trainings and human resource guidance to Muruganantham. “He was a designer, an artist. He wasn’t a business owner by training. Equipping him with tools like this enables him to run his business more effectively,” says Kate.

While displaying some of his latest shirts, Muruganantham talks about his experience working with Kate, “She would spend a day with us, and then give us homework… like keeping records of sales… and she helped us understand inventory and how to get more profit from the raw materials,” he says. Trainings included sessions on how to manage employees, maximize inventory efficiency and keep track of financial records. “She also taught me to be more proactive and work together with my employees.”

Since BIZ+’s initial investment in 2013, Agash has expanded operations, created 32 new jobs and seen a 25 percent increase in profit for each shirt made.

“I am now able to do business in the proper manner and think about the future,” says Muruganantham.

So, what’s next for Kate?
As for Kate’s immediate future, she’s back in Vancouver returning to work as project manager for corporations and government institutions. She also plans to spend some time at home on Bowen Island, British Colombia. Though she’s not sure where or exactly when she’ll head back overseas for volunteering, she likes thinking about how many possibilities there are out there. Like majestic Mt. Everest, the sky is the limit for Kate.

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School’s Back!

At least here in the Northern Hemisphere, kids and teachers returned to school in their droves this week.  It’s hot and sticky here in British Columbia and I feel for the little kids, donning clothes suitable for school and shoes.  Shoes stick in my mind as when I was a young ‘un, we Coffeypots would run around in our bare feet all Summer and hate, really hate having to don socks and shoes come September.  Dem were the days.

For most of us, going back to school is a given.  As kids we might have claimed to be devastated that the Summer was over and we had to go back to school.  But underneath it all, we relished the new clothes, perhaps a new lunch box, new books covered in brown-paper to protect them against grimy hands, new copybooks and pencils (maybe it’s an iPad these days!), reconnecting with friends and most importantly, the excitement over the learning the year ahead would bring.

Unfortunately not every kid in this world gets to experience that sense of buoyant anticipation for the new school year ahead.  Climate change and the resulting rising waters in Bangladesh have washed away many schools.  After the worst monsoon season in the recent months in nearly 30 years, it’s estimated 600,000 children in Bangladesh will not return to school.  In northern Bangladesh, home to some 20 million people, less than 1% finish high school.  That’s an awful lot of kids without education.

Trust BRAC to come up with a creative solution in spite of the environmental challenges – floating classrooms where kids can attend school no matter how high the water goes.

Photo credit: BRAC

This article in the BRAC Blog is an informative quick read around floating classrooms.

Nepal has greater numbers of children going to school, but man do they ever have to jump through hoops to make it to the closest school every day!  This short clip intrigues me.  It shows some very young children, ziplining across a rather fast-flowing river to get to the other side, before walking further to school.  Take note, there are no safety measures taken, there isn’t an adult in sight.  There’s no bickering among the kids, they are just getting on with the business of getting across the river to go to school.

Video credit KTM Nepal.

I am in constant awe of the resilience of the Nepali people, and the inventiveness with which they solve problems.  As many of you know, I have been supporting SIRC for many years now, and met Vocational Trainer Rishi Ram Dhakal there in 2013.

Since first meeting Rishi, he has been part of a group that set up Nepal’s SCI Sports Association in 2014, an organization that has gone on to organize basketball, table tennis, swimming and cricket at local, national and international levels, recently sending Nepali athletes to the Asian para-games.

Rishi (centre) with friends showcasing wheelchair basketball on SCI Day in Bhaktapur 2016. Photo credit SIRC

After the 2015 earthquakes, Rishi along with seven others created the SCI Network, whose first project is the set-up and operation of the SCI Hostel.  The hostel provides a home away from home for children and young adults who live with SCI, to complete their education in Kathmandu – something that would just be impossible if they were return home to their mountainous villages in rural Nepal.

Later this Fall and as part of an afternoon of stories about my recent work in Sri Lanka, I’ll introduce you to Rishi’s SCI Hostel in more detail, and ask for some donations in support of it’s future plans to expand the hostel … allowing some of those children on the waitlist, to get back to school.  You never know, I might even serve a little Sri Lankan food (I promise I won’t make it too spicy!).  I’ll let you know the date when I know it.

On this, the week when kids in many countries around the world go back to school, it’s good to acknowledge and applaud the organizations and people who make education possible for those who otherwise would not have access to it.

I’m in wonder at their dedication.

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Maeve Mulcahy: #swimfastnet

A detailed account of my sister Maeve Mulcahy record-making swim from The Fastnet Rock to Baltimore, Cork Ireland on September 1, 2017. Pure determination and the support of dedicated friends. Inspired I am.

Myrtleville Swimmers

This is my account of my Fastnet to Baltimore swim which I completed on 1st September 2017.

I had originally been training for the Galway Bay Swim which was to happen in July.  Unfortunately, this year it was very difficult to procure boats and, much to my disappointment, I was unable to do the swim.  I had been training solidly coming up to July and I didn’t want to waste my efforts.  So, my Myrtle Turtle mates, Eoin Lowry and Anne Sheehy, and I set about looking to organise a swim that I could do. 

Many years ago, a very wise young man, Owen O’Keefe, a.k.a. Fermoy Fish, said to me, always remember if you’re the first to do a swim, nobody can ever take that from you, no matter how long it takes you to do it – thank you Owen for that advice!  So, with that in…

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Kathmandu roads during monsoon

Take a look at the Nepali Times 2.30 mins clip of a bike’s journey from Jorpati to Chabahil in the city of Kathmandu, Nepal.  Grant it, it is monsoon season which makes things worse, but Jorpati is as bad as this clip shows … at least it was 6 weeks ago when I was there.

Many people with disabilities live in Jorpati due to its proximity to the Orthopedic Hospital, so you can imagine the challenges facing those on crutches or in a wheelchair, trying to make their way around!

I had not realized the schoolgirl who fell into the drain, actually died.

Besides the crowds, crazy traffic and pollution, this is one of the reasons why I spend as little time as possible in Kathmandu, especially during monsoon.

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Mankamana … finally

It all started in late 2014 when my sister Maeve and I bought a bunch of tickets to the Cork Film Festival.  Her hubbie does not like going to see films much and I had not seen a film for quite some time.  This was after all the time I returned to the western world after spending a year in Nepal, Bangladesh, India s well as visiting family and friends in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, UK and Ireland.  It was a mammoth travel year back then.  But I digress …..

Mankamana, before I ever knew it was a sacred temple, was a documentary film to me.  We chose to see this film from the huge selection offered by the Cork Film Fest, purely because it was Nepal-related.  If you like a slow, thought-provoking, visually stunning film featuring snippets of ordinary people’s lives, then you will enjoy this film.  You can check out the trailer here.

The filmmakers installed a camera in one of the cable cars that ferries people from the road, across the raging Trisuli River and up up up high to the Manakamana Temple in the clouds.  They did a lovely job of linking all the vignettes together.  I particularly adored the clip with the women eating the ice creams.  I so loved the film that I was determined to visit the real place.

There’s much evidence of massive landslides along the highway that connects it to Kathmandu some 140 km away.  It’s the threat of landslides particularly during monsoon season that has prevented me from making the journey there late in 2015, Summer and Fall 2016 and again in Spring 2017.  Luck was on my side in June 2017 when Prajwal and I made the 5-7 hour one-way journey by bus, there and back all in one day.  Man was it ever a long day!    But worth it, as I got to be reminded of the inherent beauty of rural Nepal in all it’s monsoon luscious glory.

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The Mankamana Temple is in the Gorkha district of Nepal at 1,302 meters in elevation and overlooks the raging Trisuli River. The Temple sits close to what was the epicentre of the 2015 earthquake and restoration work continues to rectify the structural damage from over 2 years ago.

Manakamana is the sacred place of the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati, an incarnation of Parvati.  Its name originates from two words: “mana” meaning heart and “kamana” meaning wish.  It is said any wish truly coming from your heart, is always granted by the Goddess Manakamana.  I don’t think this is a myth, the wish I put forward on my visit there has been granted not six weeks later! Not for me, for someone else.

The pilgrimage to Manakamana is known as Manakamana Darshan and many Hindus make it frequently, especially when a new wish is sought, or thanks needs to be given for a wish granted.  Popular times of year to go of course are during Dashain (September/October) and Nag Panchami (July/August).  Going in June meant less crowds, still crowded enough for me though!  Offerings are an important part of the pilgrimage and include a selection of rice, red cloth, nuts, flowers, coconuts, oil lamp, incense and betel nuts.  Everyone gets in line with their offering and waits while the long line snakes it’s way along,  On the day we were there it was at least a one-hour wait.

 

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Sacrifice of roosters and goats is common, as in all temples and there’s even a separate cable car to transport the goats to the temple, oblivious to what is about to happen to them.  That same cable car transports the bloody sacks of carcasses down where people bring the slain animal home to eat.

In the western world we are so far removed from where our meat comes from, it’s sometimes good to be reminded.  If you have the stomach for it, you can revisit a post I write in early 2014 where a goat was slain on the SIRC Staff Picnic to Dhakshinkali, another sacred temple.  But this goat was for lunch, and was never intended to be a sacrifice.

The cable car ride was a highlight for me.  Nepal’s first cable car system, it was manufactured in Austria and opened for business on Nov 24, 1998.  Before the cable car, pilgrims had to hike over 3 miles with an elevation gain of over 3,500 ft … thank goodness for the cable car!  It runs during daylight hours with a break for lunch and has had a consistent safety record, even after the earthquakes.  It can carry 600 people to the summit every hour, and with 3 cable cars for the goats, who knows how many goats at a time.  From what I could see, roosters travel up with their owners in burlap sacks.

The cable car is in part sponsored by NCell, one of Nepal’s mobile companies and boy do they take advantage of the opportunity to splash their corporate colours around!

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* Just under three years after the opening of the Mankamana Cable Car, the same HRH Crown Prince Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah massacred his parents, brother and sister over a disagreement on who he should marry.

My journey to Manakamana was a long time coming, and I was really thrilled to make it there.  Much thanks has to go to Prajwal for accompanying me and figuring out that there was a bus direct from Jorpati where he lives with Sanjita his wife.  So much easier to be picked up and dropped off close to ‘home’!

And do you think I have a photo of Prajwal and I on our pilgrimage that day – unfortunately not.  Mad at myself about that.

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Home again, naturally

It’s been a whirlwind of activity since returning home to Bowen Island two weeks ago.  So many friends to spend time with, catch up on 12 months worth of stories from their lives, and share my stories with them (not everyone has the patience to read this blog!).  Many more to meet both on Bowen and in Vancouver … it’s gonna be a social summer.

The weather has been gorgeous since I got back, sunshine with temperatures in the mid-20s, cooling to high teens in the evenings.  With so much recent rain followed by sunshine in the last two weeks, the gardens have just exploded with growth.  They don’t call it a temperate rainforest here in the west coast for nothing!

Bowen Island’s quirky, latest promotion for the tourists LOL

My friends Rob Squared continue to live in my home while they see their construction through, and I am staying with the ever generous Judi who has opened her home to me with open arms.  All going well, I’ll return to my own home by the end of August.  Can’t wait to sleep in my own bed!

Home on Bowen

It’s hard to believe I left Sri Lanka a mere three weeks ago, I feel like I have lived a lifetime since!  I was real sorry to leave all of the people I worked so closely with during the nine months I was there and, while looking through the photos, I have only begun to realize how many long-lasting friendships I made while there.

I love this photo of the BIZ+ team dressed in red for International Women’s Day 2017

And here’s a quick slideshow of the people who made me feel so welcome, allowing me to ease into life in what was my home for 9 months.

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Nanri / Obata Stutiyi /Thank you to each and every one of you. xo

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Farewell, Kutpai, Ayubowan Sri Lanka

Looking back on all that I experienced, there are two things that surface over and over – the people and of course the food.  I was lucky to be working with a bunch of ladies who love to cook, and eat and love to try different foods.  Lunchtimes every day when I was in  my Colombo base, ended up being a smorgasbord of foodie delights – everyone ended up giving a spoonful of their dish to everyone at the table, and in return you got taste 6-8 other dishes – Sri Lanka’s version of a cookie swap.

The BIZ+ Colombo office team, all in red celebrating International Women’s Day – March 8, 2017

And then there was the work with VEGA BIZ+, providing assistance and coaching to small family run business in the North and East of the country.  The business I worked with were varied:  rice flour mill, FIBC polybag manufacturer, heirloom rice and a garment factory.  All needing various levels of support, some more than others.

I worked particularly closely with Thayalini on one challenging business, but with such an awesome team of ladies, this business is now profitable and the outlook looks very positive.

Thayaini and I saying our farewells at Palaly Airforce Base, Jaffna

And now for a whole bunch of memories …

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I missed a few photos – Thushy from Batti office who was a gem to work with.  Also to Prasanna and Purusoth … I ended up only working with them once in the 9 months.

Thank you everyone, for making me feel so welcome, it was a truly memorable experience.  I will miss you all!

Tonight I fly to Kathmandu to visit friends in Banepa for a week or so and will drop into SIRC too.  Dying to see everyone in Nepal!

Much love and peace

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