- In 1962, Fernandez saw beyond a desolate piece of land in Ragama town near Colombo overgrown with shrubs and wild plants, and infested with venomous snakes and chose the site to build his Diyagala Boys’ Town.
- Much work had to be done to clear the hilly, rocky land but not a thing was wasted during those early days: rocks dynamited from the soil were crushed and used for building material, and the Brothers started growing vegetables, and raising pigs and poultry.
- Soon, neat gardens, farms, a dormitory, workshops, and a chapel tell of contributions in kind and the determined effort to create the Diyagala Boys’ Town. More than providing education, it provides a rounded, character-forming experience to youths aged 14 to 20 with a guiding philosophy expressed in the motto, “Deeds Not Words.”
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his effective teaching of skills, values and discipline that build underprivileged and delinquent boys into self-respecting, useful citizens.”
Youth compose the most precious resource in every country yet remain in many lands among the most underutilized. Especially is this so in Asia where young people make up more than one-half of the total population, and unemployment or underemployment are often the lot of the majority. Without jobs in sight, young folk are easily discouraged from using fully opportunities for self-development. In turn, they lack the skills that would make them useful. Thwarted in their ambitions, they fail to discover the creative satisfaction of disciplined, productive work, and their country’s development suffers the loss of their latent talents.
Fourteen years ago when Brother HERMENEGILD JOSEPH first looked at the desolate slopes of scrub jungle surrounding the water tank on Orange Hill of Ragama Town Council near Colombo, his mind’s eye saw beyond the inauspicious appearance. With imaginative determination he chose this 44.53-hectare site for the Brothers of Christian Schools to provide refuge and redirection for very poor, orphaned and handicapped boys, and delinquents released to them from correctional institutions. Diyagala Boys’ Town opened in 1963 in makeshift buildings with an entering class of 25 youngsters.
Today the hillsides have been transformed. Neat gardens, farms, dormitory, workshops, livestock and poultry enclosures, and a chapel all tell of contributions in kind and effort to create the Sri Lanka Technical Institute. This certificate-granting arm of Diyagala Boys’ Town is schooling for a responsible life 315 youths, aged 14 to 20, in scientific agriculture and practical trades. More than education, it provides a rounded, character-forming experience with a guiding philosophy expressed in the motto, “Deeds Not Words.”
Diyagala Boys’ Town cooperates with the government assault on unemployment that seeks alternatives to the futile hunt for white collar jobs by cultivating pride in the art and dignity of the craftsman’s and farmer’s skills and performance. Hard manual work in field and workshop under strict, competent supervision is part of the four-year curriculum. Income generated from machine and carpentry shops, farms and livestock covers most running costs. “Corporations,” with rotating membership of as many boys as a job requires, are accountable for every activity from housekeeping, water management, meat processing, a bakery, crops, roads and equipment to sports. A point system instills cooperation and healthy competition among these teams. Responsible democracy is taught by participation in the tribunal that judges guilt for wrongdoing.
With a waiting list of over 2,000 seeking entrance, word has spread that the Institute offers a future, for its skilled, diligent graduates are readily employed. Neighbors come to learn and buy planting material at a highland extension center raising seed, potatoes and vegetables, and at other stations specializing in rice, coconuts and mixed-farming. All are a tribute to the nine De La Salle Brothers and a lay staff of 10. Special credit belongs to the dynamic 60-year-old French Founder Director whose thorough planning, shrewd enlistment of local and foreign support, and efficient organization has permitted rapid progression from land clearing to creating a thriving showcase of the power of teaching boys to take confidence in themselves and their work.
In electing Rev. Brother HERMENEGILD JOSEPH to receive the 1976 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his effective teaching of skills, values and discipline that build underprivileged and delinquent boys into self-respecting, useful citizens.
Much as I shun honors and praises, I am grateful to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for having studied and found to be of service to society the methods of training and youth formation I have been working on for some time, especially in helping the underprivileged youth of Sri Lanka. All those who have rallied round me should see in this Award a public recognition of the worthiness of our work and of their involvement in the cause it serves. For myself and all my supporters, I express humble and very sincere thanks to the Trustees of the Foundation. I pay my respects to the late President Ramon Magsaysay, a man of great heart and wonderful vision, and I congratulate all those who have helped keep the spirit of this great President alive and effective by maintaining so very successfully this fine Foundation. It is a great honor, indeed, for me and my associates to be included in the distinguished fraternity of the Magsaysay Awardees.
As an educator, I started at 17 years of age in a very poor school in southern France—my own country—with a class of 104 lads of various ages and degrees of poverty—poor in the goods of this world, in brain potential and poorer still in parents’ attention. To find those lads were happy only in class indelibly impressed me. The sight of them wasting their time roaming the streets on vacations and coming back to me on Mondays, half wild, prodded me to organize games, work where together we did very simple jobs, Scout camps and excursions. Watching them become interested, keen, resourceful, and helpful to each other, I began thinking that something should be done for poor and abandoned children instead of just blaming them.
When duty took me to teach more fortunate children in Lebanon, England, and Sri Lanka, I managed to run extracurricular activities for “retarded” boys to which large numbers of “outsiders,” or deprived boys, were attracted. Studying their cases, their needs, aspirations and potentialities, I discovered a “bad boy” is made by circumstances, mostly by poverty or rejection by those who should have attended to him. I came to know that given proper chances and care nearly all boys classed as “rejects” or “dangers” would rise to be excellent young men, good husbands and fathers, successful workers, reliable citizens, even heroes. I also saw that even the type of education we were imparting to the better off was too academic and impractical. My quest for something different to help the unfortunate led me to conclude that homes, centers, refuges—call them as you like—must be created where embittered and frustrated youths could find occupation, guidance and training, where men of dedication and vision could be their understanding friends and helpers, share their work, food, sports, art and social life, love them and create around them the atmosphere, the society, the family spirit needed to gain their sympathetic involvement.
In my experience, a study of any delinquency case will uncover a desire for “activity,” for “participation,” for “doing.” I had noted such youngsters, even if they cannot express it, aspire for a way of life, not necessarily the easier one, which will allow them to fulfill themselves and even be in a position to help others—an old, bedridden mother, younger brothers or sisters they know to be in distress, or a needy friend met when they themselves ran the streets. Indirectly, it is an aspiration to serve the larger community, the country.
Feeling I must be ready to attend to these inner good dispositions of underprivileged children, I planned a home where such youths would be provided with opportunities to improve themselves. They would be trained in jobs in agriculture, industries, trades. They would be further educated and their character formed. They would be given a sense of duty, honesty, love for work well done. They would be given a proper vision of what life truly is. They would be shown the correct way to self-sufficiency and proper use of time and money. They would be trained to civic life, to love others and country. Little by little they would be made to realize they have a good role to play. When, at long last, I was asked to set up a home for orphans and uncared for youths, my joy knew no bounds. There were to be many difficulties and there were failures, but we had the will and found a way.
At the start we had the good fortune of the approval and encouragement of the then Provincial of the De La Salle Brothers in Sri Lanka, Very Rev. Bro. Vincent Joseph; of His Eminence Cardinal Cooray of Colombo; of the government of Sri Lanka through the ministers of Social Services, Industries and Agriculture; of the then Director of Agriculture, Dr. W. Joachim. Similar support came from successive Provincials, Rev. Bros. Lawrence and Flavian, and especially the Assistant Superior General of the De La Salle Brothers for Asia, the Very Rev. Bro. Michael Jacques who is with us today deputizing for the Superior General himself, Very Rev. Bro. Pablo-Manuel. Throughout the years I have been privileged to have the assistance of exceptional young men. One who started with me, Rev. Bro. Philip, is still there and has endeared himself to all by his devotion and the efficiency he brings to every aspect of our campus work. Then there is the chorus of friends and philanthropic organizations from Sri Lanka and many countries who have helped us generously. They all share this Award.
Though Diyagala Boys’ Town was meticulously prepared in all its details, our work at the beginning was very hard indeed. We three animators and 25 half-starved boys of all castes and creeds lived together in cadjan sheds, cleared jungle, leveled land, grew a few vegetables, reared poultry, pigs and goats, cooked our food and cut bricks and cabouks for our initial buildings. But the boys could see and take pride in the town we were building ourselves and very soon we were a family community where each had a role. Before the year ended help came from international organizations—like MISEREOR of West Germany—to equip workshops and build kitchens, refectories and dormitories according to plan. Most encouraging was to see the youngsters accept the hardships and discipline because they felt they were fast improving their chances in life. Hope had been restored to them. What matters is that the boy feels he is loved, that he is wanted, that he is given responsibility and that he is trusted. These are the thirsts and aspirations of youth today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. They are those of underprivileged children most acutely. It is the duty of our personnel, as it should be of all those wishing to achieve success with underprivileged children, to be firm but lavish with encouragement; to be experts in instruction, training, guidance; to love to work in association with the boys, and to share in dialogue, planning, execution and evaluation of results. They must be organizers, animators and guides but without excluding the boys themselves. Thus, in the true sense of service each is contributing, defining together the reasons for success or failure, suggesting improvement, working toward shared goals, and understanding his own duty and the common good. Our system—theoretical and perhaps difficult as it may seem—is both simple and effective. It is a training for involvement and responsibility. Today we feel very happy that the Foundation has given the Award for Public Service to my humble self. This is a wonderful encouragement to me and my associates and helpers.
HERMENEGILD JOSEPH was born on July 12, 1914 in Vendémian, a small town near Montpellier, France. He was the second of three boys and two girls born to Mary Gilberte Fernandez and Jean Fernandez, an agriculturist in that winegrowing region not far from the Mediterranean coast.
JOSEPH began his education at Vendémian county elementary school. There his curiosity and imagination were set ablaze by M. Colar, an unforgettable teacher, who told the youngsters tales of battles, explorers, adventurers and the wonders of the world while teaching history and geography. Toward the end of his primary school days JOSEPH heard the dynamic speaker, Brother Joel of the La Salle Brothers, tell of the need for volunteers to go out into the world to help poor boys; young JOSEPH began to dream of joining the order. Founded by (Saint) John Baptiste de La Salle around 1680 in Rheims, France, as the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and known in some countries as the La Salle Brothers and in others as the Christian Brothers, this Catholic lay order is concerned primarily with the Christian education of poor and working class boys.
JOSEPH enrolled in the Institution St. Joseph, a junior school run by the Brothers, in Béziers some forty miles from his home. He finished his secondary education at the Brothers’ Immaculate Conception College in Béziers in June 1928 and from October 1928 to the end of 1929 attended the Brothers’ Immaculate Conception College in Figueras, Spain.
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