Selfless volunteering earns scholarship for Charlottetown Rural student

Jim Day
Published on June 7, 2014

Sawini Fernando pays a visit with Garden Home resident Flora Cobb. Visiting seniors is just one of many selfless acts that helped earn the high school student a major scholarship valued up to $70,000.

©THE GUARDIAN/Heather Taweel

By Bob King’s calculation, teenager Sawini Fernando is one in a million.

The supervisor of the soup kitchen in Charlottetown is unabashed in heaping high praise on the volunteer.

Fernando, a Grade 12 student at Charlottetown Rural High School, impresses with a special blend of selfless action and engaging personality.

King marvels at the teen’s innate knack to connect with clients at the soup kitchen as she goes about serving meals to them once a week. She is personable. She communicates effortlessly with everyone.

“Oh, she’s fantastic,’’ says King. “She’s a fantastic girl.’’

Fernando’s goodwill extends well beyond the soup kitchen.

Each Thursday night, without fail, she makes her way to the Garden Home in Charlottetown to visit with seniors. She holds hands. She chats. She comforts residents with her warmth.

“A lot of them don’t get visited too much,’’ says Fernando.

“Some of them don’t engage much in conversation but the ones that do, they don’t let you leave. They keep talking and talking. They’re sweet.’’

Fernando also volunteers her time and talent to tutoring adult immigrants in an English language program.

Born in Sri Lanka, she empathizes with the challenges immigrants face when tackling a new language and taking on a dramatically new life.

She was only six when her family moved to Brampton, Ont. She left her homeland as an outgoing, extroverted little girl. She believes culture shock quickly led her to become “really quiet’’ when she came to Canada.

The cultural jolt was even more pronounced for her parents, Gerard and Punya.

In Sri Lanka, her father was a librarian at a medical library and her mother taught science at university. Their degrees were not transferable in Canada so they needed to go back to school when they came to this country.

Even after living for 12 years in Canada, Fernando’s parents are still getting accustomed “little by little’’ to the change.

They are adapting well, though, with their family of five (Fernando has 15-year-old twin siblings named Tanuj and Tarini) living in Stratford for the past four years.

Punya works as a chemist at Bio Vectra while Gerard is a medical lab technician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

As for Fernando, she seems to fit in rather well wherever she goes.

At first, she found the Maritime culture different, but she grew to love the small town feeling.

“I’m definitely happy now in P.E.I.,’’ she says.

When she saw an increase in international students this school year at Charlottetown Rural, she thought about helping them fit in better. So she and a few friends formed a club called the International Students Association to help the newcomers adapt to life on P.E.I.

Meetings, social gatherings and volunteering activities helped the teens, many coming from China, some from Japan and one from Brazil, fit into their Canadian surroundings.

Among a host of initiatives, the multicultural group went door-to-door collecting non-perishable goods for the food bank and alo took part in a fundraiser for The Kidney Foundation.

Fernando feels the club has helped increase the confidence of the participating international students, encouraging them to become more involved in the community.

For Fernando, the club and all of her other volunteer work has nurtured priceless personal development.

“Definitely it shaped a lot of my character, who I’ve become,’’ she says. “Definitely gives you a sense of humility. You definitely become more humble.’’

Now, Fernando’s selfless work is also paying back in quite valuable monetary dividends. She has earned a TD Scholarship for Community Leadership valued up to $70,000.

She will receive tuition for an accredited university or college in Canada, $7,500 a year for living expenses, summer employment within TD Bank Group for up to four years, and mentorship and networking opportunities. She is one of 20 high school students to receive the scholarship this year.

Jane Thompson, executive director of the scholarship program, notes competition is fierce. Thousands of applications are submitted each year.

Applications are open to students across Canada who are in their final year of high school, have a minimum overall average of 75 per cent in their most recently completed school year, and demonstrate community leadership. Regional selection panels interview finalists in early spring.

“What we are really looking for is initiative and innovation,’’ says Thompson.

Ultimately, she notes, the nod is given to students who truly care about other people and are not seeking glory for themselves. Students like Fernando.

Thompson says the Stratford teen reminds her of a sparkling brook, possessing a combination of peacefulness and joyfulness.

For Fernando, the scholarship is a welcome surprise.

“I did not think in a million years that I would get it,’’ she says. “This is such a huge honour.’’

Fernado plans to study medical science at Dalhousie University in Halifax with the goal of becoming a surgeon.

As Fernando notes, not the least bit surprisingly, she would not be happy with a career where she felt she was not helping people.