Sheneli Meneripitiyage Dona’s excitement is mounting as she prepares to visit the United Nations’ New York headquarters.
The Year 12 student at Good Samaritan Catholic College Hinchinbrook will speak with President of the United Nations General Assembly, Ugandan politician and lawyer Sam Kutesa, and like-minded young people from around the world at a youth conference held at the venue on May 29. Though accompanied by her parents, security is so strict that Sheneli must enter the general assembly hall alone to address her peers and UN delegates.
She is well placed for the task after becoming a Global Volunteer Network Youth Ambassador last year. She plans to study a Bachelor of Commerce/ Bachelor of Law at university in 2016, and will launch an official charity in December to support women and children to break the poverty cycle. She has researched sites around the world and will begin in Kegalle District, a poor region in Sri Lanka with an existing school of about 50 children, before expanding to other parts of Asia.
“In 2012 we went to Sri Lanka for a family holiday and going past the really poor regions in the area, there were a lot of schools that were run down,” she said. “The kids don’t have shoes, they go with bare feet, and I thought to myself: “I have a lot of shoes. Why can’t I give at least one pair of them?
“There’s no water supply [at the Kegalle District school] and the kids faint there because they’ve had no breakfast. I want to supply water for them and give them the basic necessities to go to school and get an education.
“I’ve always had a passion for upholding human rights and human dignity, especially children’s rights and women’s rights,” she said. “In Australia we have so much opportunity, and there are always places we can go for help. I think we have a duty of care for those people who don’t, so that’s where I’m heading.”
Sheneli said there was a lot to think about when starting a charity. Her brother-in-law, a Business Development Manager is taking care of legal aspects and liaising with corporations to get enough start-up capital for the charity to begin at grassroots level. Sheneli’s Sri Lanka-based relatives among those who will help support the charity on the ground. She will also seek sponsorship and create awareness days, conferences, fundraisers and events to support the fledgling charity organisation.
“Even in Australia I think we see that women and children are victims,” she said.
“Sri Lanka is really dominated by men in politics and in every aspect, but a woman has the power and responsibility to make change as well. They give birth to children, and they should be respected.
“And children because of their vulnerability and because they are naive they are easy targets.”
Sheneli said her school and family’s Catholic values had added to her conviction and motivated her to make change in the world.
“A charity has always been my goal and I’ve always done things to make those imaginings a reality,” she said.
“I think it’s those morals and values that have been instilled in me that motivated me.
“Matthew 17:20, which is ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains’ – that has really influenced me. It has been like my motto since I was young.
“A perfect world seems impossible when people see [problems] but it is possible, in the ways that we educate people and create awareness, and I think that is what we’ll be discussing at the United Nations.”