Castleton Corners man sends thousands of books to Sri Lanka
Friday 27 August 2010
Shipping some 300 boxes at a time, Harold Sirisena, over 24 years, has gathered, packed and anonymously mailed hundreds of thousands of volumes across two oceans, from Staten Island to his native Sri Lanka.
He never accepted donations of funds; he never put his name on the packages. For him, imagining barefooted children with eager minds - the portrait of himself as a young boy - was enough to fuel an obsessive philanthropic drive.
Sirisena, a 66-year-old City Tech college administrator with a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University, worked a second job on Wall Street for seven years to fund his charitable mission.
Last year, he had surgery for a near-fatal blood clot in his brain that formed after a stack of his books fell from a forklift and knocked him unconscious.
This year, he considered discontinuing his epic book drive when storage and shipping costs began to exceed his means.
But it’s not clear that Sirisena can stop.
"I have to," Sirisena said this month inside a trailer parked behind the New York Sports Club in Travis, home to 294 boxes of textbooks, histories and anthologies, novels and biographies. "I might do this until I die."
Sirisena has independently supplied the developing country with the equivalent of a seventh of the books that currently circulate in the entire New York Public Library system.
Sri Lanka has a 91 percent literacy rate, but because of widespread poverty, natural disasters and civil warfare that ended in 2009, books can be in short supply.
Giving permeates the culture of Sri Lanka, says Sirisena.
Teachers gave him his first shoes and the books that inspired his love of learning; among them were the works of Socrates, who argued that to know the good was to do it.
Sirisena helped his father distribute the butter and oil that he received once a month as an ex-serviceman, and from muddy banks and shallows, he helped his dad collect lotus flowers for full moon observances at the Buddhist temple.
HOW HE STARTED
After moving to the U.S., Sirisena began sending gifts back home.
In 1986, he and his wife, Niranjani, went to the St. George post office with two boxes filled with books and a letter addressed to Sirisena’s father with instructions for distributing them.
Two boxes a year quickly became four.
Then Sirisena met a man with a shipping business, and around 1996 the operation ballooned.
Some rough math: Some 300 boxes per shipment X an average of 30 books per box X about five shipments per year, over the past 14 years = 630,000 books; Sirisena estimates he sent at least 70,000 or so during his first decade of shipments.
About 80 percent of the books have been donated. The others, Sirisena has bought at yard sales, collected from schools, or found along long walks in the city.
Despite the volume of books that passes through his hands to be stamped, wrapped in plastic, and boxed by theme, Sirisena seems to pause over each one to appreciate its value.
"This is old, it’s a past edition," he said, thumbing through a barely used biology text book from Curtis High School. "But it’s worth its weight in gold."
Stacked inside the trailer where Sirisena works in all weather are treasuries of children’s stories, poetry anthologies, histories and classics.
Also neatly organized in boxes destined for 52 high schools, universities, temples and social service organizations are crutches and wheelchairs, records for the blind, and eyeglasses never collected from local lost-and-found offices.
"It’s a great feeling," said Sirisena, applying a red stamp marking the books in English and Sinhalese as donations from the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara. "If I stop sending this, I might get a nervous breakdown."
And yet the project as it has run in the past has become untenable.
The operation costs Sirisena about $20,000 a year to manage, but in recent years, costs of both storage and shipping have spiraled.
"I’m not collecting books now because I have no more place to keep them," said Sirisena, whose garage in Castleton Corners also is flanked with boxes. "I don’t know if I have enough money to keep shipping. But how do I justify not sending books I’ve collected? After these next shipments I may stop, but this is my passion. It’s my vocation."
It’s time, says Sirisena in his soft-spoken way, "to appeal for a few funds."
Modestly, Sirisena declines to mark the boxes with his name and credits a litany of helpers - from a firefighter with a van who helps with transportation to a Staples employee who contributes used boxes - for helping his project run.
Recipients never know Sirisena’s name, and as recently as 2007, Sirisena needed convincing over the inclusion of his name in an Advance article about his project.
In 2008, Sirisena was the subject of a tender documentary made by Concord filmmaker Jay Weichun, "Books from Home."
"In the process, I have met so many people always wanting to help," he said. "It’s something I do for the sake of my parents, my wife’s parents, and my children."