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The Kindness
Of Strangers


Like hundreds of thousands, teacher Laura Dunham's tranquil morning in Sri Lanka December 26, 2004, was shattered by a massive tsunami. Afterward, Dunham was fed and sheltered by local residents, and returned to that village to help with reconstruction. Included: One teacher's effort to help with tsunami relief.

Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, after the tsunami.
(Photo courtesy of Laura Dunham)

Special education teacher Laura Dunham was on the second half of her yearlong journey through Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, and Tibet when she arrived in Sri Lanka December 26, 2004. Dunham was staying in a small coastal village called Unawatuna when she became one of the hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by a massive tsunami that hit Sri Lanka and other countries in the region. Despite their own devastating losses, local residents opened their homes to tourists and shared their meager food supplies until the visitors could be evacuated from the area.

Dunham, on a leave of absence from her job teaching inclusion English to tenth, 11th, and 12th graders at Valley Stream South High School in Valley Stream, N.Y., said she always will remember the Sri Lankan's generosity, and wants others to know about it as well. She returned to the U.S. after the tsunami and spent two months lecturing at high schools and churches across Long Island, New York, to raise money for relief efforts.

Dunham works with a charity started in London called Friends of Unawatuna. Friends is a grassroots organization run by volunteers and survivors who "also experienced the incredible generosity and kindness of the Sri Lankans," Dunahm told Education World. One hundred percent of all donations are used to fund community projects that benefit the entire village, such as rebuilding the school and orphanage, securing fresh water for residents, clearing debris, and repairing roads.

In mid-March 2005, Dunham decided to return to Unawatuna to offer hands-on help in the recovery effort. She chronicles some of the reconstruction projects in the Sri Lanka -- Relief and Recovery section of her Web site Every Day is Sunday. She talked with Education World before leaving, and at the time was uncertain whether she would return to her original itinerary. "I have no idea how long we will spend in Sri Lanka," Dunham said back in 2005. "I have until August. I do want to go to India for at least one month. I just have no idea how I will feel or how much we have to do when we get back to Sri Lanka. I'm just going to take it day by day and make my decisions as they come."

She also talked about her experiences on the day of the tsunami, and the lessons about compassion and global awareness she wants to bring back to her students.

"Traveling the world is an experience that has changed my life and my teaching. Because of my experiences, I bring the world, historically and culturally, back to my classroom to enhance any lessons," says special education teacher Laura Dunham.

Education World: Can you describe your experience on the day of the tsunami?

Laura Dunham: December 26 started off like any other day in paradise: a lazy morning, the promise of a good breakfast and a swim in the sapphire ocean. At 9:25 a.m. that was all forgotten, as the waters swept in a violent fury around the guesthouse in which I was staying, in a small fishing and tourist town on the coast called Unawatuna. My small two-story guesthouse was a five-minute walk to the beach and so was completely engulfed by the tsunami. The water rose to the bottom of my balcony in 20 seconds. It was terrifying, and I thought I was going to die many times that morning and throughout the next three days before we were evacuated from the village. After an hour and a half, the water receded and we plowed through the thigh-deep, debris-filled water to an untouched hotel on the hill, and then ran up the cliff behind the hotel when the second surge came crashing through the town.

EW: How did the local people help you?

Dunham: The village at the top of the hill had not been affected by the water, but many families were wailing in grief for family members who lived below. In a time of their own tragedy and sorrow, the Sri Lankans exhibited what is best about the human spirit: courage, kindness, and generosity. Every family took in tourists for the three days before we were evacuated. They fed us, gave us a place to sleep, and shared their precious water. They, who had nothing and had lost much, gave everything. Their extraordinary kindness can teach the world and our leaders the meaning of the words compassion and community.

The owner of our guesthouse lost three family members that day, yet was still concerned about our safety. We gave all our clothing, shoes, medication, and extra money to the families who helped us. Every Sri Lankan begged us to please come back someday, that it was not their country's fault. In a world where the Super Bowl was more important news than the world's worst natural disaster, we cannot forget them, and we cannot abandon them.

EW: Why did you decide to speak to students when you came back to the U.S.? What message do you want to convey to them?

Dunham: For two months, I visited schools on Long Island to speak about my experience, and I want the students to walk away from the presentation remembering three things. First, traveling the world is an experience that can change their life. Second, many people are suffering. They need to remember how lucky they are to live in America. Third, no act of kindness or donation is too small. Kindness radiates.

The response has been overwhelming and the silence of the audience, no matter what the size, age or demographic, speaks volumes. I have done my presentation more than 50 times in schools and churches and have raised awareness as well as money for the village of Unawatuna and for the people who helped me. My school has raised $15,000. My friends, family, friends of friends, and friends of family have raised almost the same amount.

Laura Dunham during a stop in South Africa.
(Photo courtesy of Laura Dunham)

EW: Why are you returning to Sri Lanka?

Dunham: Something inside me is telling me I need to go. I need to go now. I need to go and help the people who helped me. Traveling has always helped me to understand that most people are kind and good. This experience has solidified it for me. I am scared and nervous and not sure if I will be able to handle it, emotionally or mentally. I will be working with Friends of Unawatuna when I return, probably with the school and the orphanage. Having never done anything like this before, I am not sure what my role will be.

EW: It sounds like you are a seasoned traveler.

Dunham: For the past 12 years, I have traveled every summer and on many school vacations. (Read about Dunham's travels at Every Day is Sunday.) This is my second leave-of-absence from teaching to travel the world. My first leave was in the years 2000-2001 to travel around South America. It was one of the best years of my life. This year my intention was to travel to Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, and Tibet. I spent six months in Africa and flew from Tanzania to Sri Lanka in December.

Why Sri Lanka? India, Sri Lanka's big brother next door, has always fascinated and intrigued me and was to be my next destination. Sri Lanka is like India light -- a similar culture, but much easier to handle.

I'm not married, I don't have children, and I don't own a home. Therefore, I have the freedom and the drive to explore our world, which is full of wonder and adventure. I don't own much, but I do have memories that will last a lifetime.

EW: How do you plan to use this experience and knowledge of Sri Lanka and other countries when you return to teaching?

Dunham: Traveling the world is an experience that has changed my life and my teaching. Because of my experiences, I bring the world, historically and culturally, back to my classroom to enhance any lesson. I have been able to incorporate my travel enthusiasm and wisdom learned on the road into many of my lessons.

EW: How has this experience affected you as a teacher?

Dunham: The other clear, shining message that I have taken away from this fateful experience is that I (and every other person on this Earth) have inside me what I to be happy right now. Not next year or next month. Not anything that I can purchase with a credit card. The love and support of my family and friends is what makes life worth living. If I can lend a hand to someone who needs help getting up after this disaster, well, that, as they say, is priceless. This is the message I will bring back to my students in the hope that they too can learn the value of compassion.

This e-interview with Laura Dunham is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.