Resilience in the face of adversity is a collective experience with Covid-19. It is also something Paul Forkan of the Gandys Foundation is familiar with, having traumatically lost his parents in a natural disaster at the age of 15. However, what came after is inspirational and admirable. Here, Paul speaks to Culture Trip about the crucial work he and his brother Rob are carrying out around the globe.
Paul Forkan was 15 when he spent Christmas of 2004 in Sri Lanka with his family. Four-and-a-half years prior, Paul’s parents Kevin and Sandra pulled him out of school from Croydon, South London with a different type of education in mind. Propelled by the mantra “don’t just exist”, travelling the globe and volunteering became the norm for Paul and his siblings. Experiencing cultures first-hand became their syllabus, with Sri Lanka just another stop on this journey.
The trip came to a premature and sad end on Boxing Day. The family was caught in the cataclysmic tsunami that ripped through northern Sumatra, claiming the lives of 227,898 people. Kevin and Sandra tragically lost their lives. “They made us feel like we could climb any mountain – even though we probably couldn’t,” Paul says in memory of his parents.
Digging deep for resilience quickly became the default for Paul and his siblings. “Looking forward instead of looking back helps us with the trauma of what we went through when we were younger,” Paul explains. However, Paul recognises a certain level of privilege came with being a British citizen. Unlike many of the Sri Lankan children that lost their parents in the tsunami, Paul and his siblings were blessed with a support network and social system that meant their sister could adopt them, and counselling was readily available.
Come 2012, and after years of ruminating over the pain of fellow orphans in more challenging social positions, Paul and his older brother Rob chose to make helping underprivileged children their lives’ work. The Gandys Foundation was formed – extending kindness, and offering education, medication and nutrition to those who needed it most. It was funded by sales of their flip-flops of the same name.
On the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, the Forkan brothers returned to Sri Lanka to open the first of their Kids Campuses. “Everyone lit lanterns and candles and paid their respects,” Paul remembers of the national mourning. “Everyone knew someone who lost someone.” Working with an entrepreneurial charity on the ground, the campus was built in response to what the community needed. A pre-school, fit with a computer lab, would allow poorer children a higher chance of succeeding at state schools and would double up as as community centre. “If some of these children haven’t been through a good pre-school then they don’t know how to sit down or behave come adolescence,“ Paul explains.
Further campuses around the world followed – with a school in Malawi in 2017 and another in Nepal in 2019. “The families in Malawi have absolutely nothing, so we built a school and bought a few fields for them to learn about farming and agriculture,” Paul says. “In Nepal, we have two projects: we rebuilt a school that was ripped apart during an earthquake – something close to our hearts – and we support a hostel that houses boys and girls who have been trafficked into India.” A campus in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil is set to open this year, while India and Mongolia are also being considered for further sites.
Sometimes, however, their charitable efforts are closer to home. “We often meet someone and think we should do something for them,” Paul says. Part of their work in the UK includes talking at schools, and it was during one visit that they met two young Scottish boys. “These brothers had lost their mum and brother and didn’t know their dad,” Paul tells me. “We set up a trust fund for them to access at 18, which would mean they could move out from their grandparents and go out and see the world.”
It seems whatever shape their projects take, the intent stays the same. “We want to give people with a hard and tough upbringing a purpose, and to show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel if they get their heads down and work towards getting an education,” Paul says. And as for those of us just learning of Gandys, the brothers hope that we adopt their parents’ philosophy of choosing dynamic paths and giving back; Gandys’ tagline “don’t just exist” serves as a reminder.