WHILE on a diving holiday in Pulau Mabul, Sabah, Raviraj Sawlani realised that real life there was nothing as picturesque as Instagram pictures would have you believe.
Teenaged glue sniffers loitered among the waving fronds of coconut trees near the jetty, and petty crime ran rampant.
“It was their way of dealing with a situation that was out of their control,” Raviraj, 32, said.
By “situation”, he means the one where foreign trawlers were harvesting all the fish in those waters, leaving very little behind for the local fishermen.
“They were suffering,” he said. “The small-boat local fishing industry is dying, but they couldn’t see any other option than to just keep trying to fish.”
While the number of fish was dwindling, resorts and diving centres were mushrooming, leveraging on the island’s pristine beauty. With full board diving packages going for about RM2,000 to RM4,000 per person, it could’ve been a sweet new source of income for the locals, whose monthly household income ranged from RM400 to RM700 – but there was a snag.
The locals didn’t have any basic hospitality training – in fact, they barely had any access to schools at all. Most couldn’t even speak English, a huge barrier to entry in the hospitality world.
With their old source of income almost completely lost and no way of getting a foothold in the new avenues available, the youths were –
understandably – disenfranchised and angry.
That’s when Raviraj had an idea: to start a free school, training them to take up tourism and hospitality jobs, not only in Mabul, but anywhere in the world.
“There was no platform to empower the youth for employment, despite so many hospitality establishments offering jobs,” he said. “I wanted to do something about that.”
He spent the rest of the year hanging out with the youth and scoping out the island, and by March 2015, Project TRY (Transforming Rural Youth), which teaches language, computer skills and the soft and hard skills necessary in the hospitality line, was launched.
It was a rocky start. On top of a total lack of funding – he had to draw from his own savings – he had little support from the elders of the community.
“They wanted their children to follow them into the fishing business, even when there were days that they would come home with just enough fish to feed themselves for a few days,” he said. “To them, it’s a way of life.”
But this is where his year’s worth of rapport with the youth came in handy.
Not only were they eager to start preparing for a new way of life, they also helped construct the school – a simple wooden building they built from upcycled wood and reinforced with drift wood and materials disposed by nearby resorts.
“I had concerns in the beginning that not very many of them would come, but I also knew that how life works is that people would come to realise the value of education,” he said.
His faith was rewarded. A trickle of students started enrolling, and soon they were at maximum capacity.
Once the first batch finished their training and landed jobs in hotels and dive centres, even the most sceptical parents had to agree that Project TRY was indeed helping their children make a better future for themselves.
During our interview, Raviraj showed us a soon-to-be released video of Project TRY, including interviews with some proud parents, all giving glowing testimonies of how their lives have now changed for the better.
“These were the same people who doubted us in the beginning,” he said, beaming with pride.
“Now that they’ve seen we’re actually helping their children, they even come to help out around the school – fixing things and keeping it a conducive space for their kids to learn.”
Having resolved one issue, Raviraj turned his attention to another one – financing.
By then, he’d been financing Project TRY out of his own pocket for a year, with the help of a couple of donations – one of them from his dad – and he needed a new, steady source of income.
To do that, he co-founded SKY International Academy which offers courses in hospitality skills and language – but for paying students..
Now, SKY International Academy has trained over 20 students, whose fees help subsidise the underprivileged students of Project TRY.
This perfect ecosystem helps Raviraj with his goal – to give underprivileged youths a chance for a brighter future – a goal that garnered Project TRY the iM4U Sukarelawan of the Year Award at last year’s iM4U Volunteerism Awards.
Despite the accolades (the project also won the MaGIC Amplify Award in 2014), Raviraj remains focused on the youth.
“I want to add value to my students’ lives,” he said.
“I have had students who are now successful dive masters, as well as F&B and housekeeping staff – all because they now speak English.
“We’ve helped create a bridge to the growing tourism industry, and now these kids have better options in life. Knowing my team and I helped them achieve this – it empowers me to want to create more opportunities for other at-risk youth out there.”