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Bruin Angels: Niranjala and Lokubanda TillakaratnePhoto by Reed Hutchinson for UCLA Today

Bruin Angels: Niranjala and Lokubanda Tillakaratne

Using primarily their own savings, they fund self-help projects for poor Sri Lankan villages, where the Tillakaratnes spend their vacation time each year.

This notice was first published in UCLA Today as part of a larger article on generous Bruins.

By Cynthia Lee

For nearly three decades, Niranjala and Lokubanda Tillakaratne have put their faith in small actions to produce life-altering changes in their native Sri Lanka. The couple, both UCLA employees, began in the '80s shipping back to universities used textbooks and secondhand journals they scrounged from friends or purchased.

Together with their daughter Mihiri, a sophomore at Harvard, the family's myriad small-scale endeavors have created the momentum for "Empower a Village." Using primarily their own savings, they fund self-help projects for poor villages, where the Tillakaratnes spend their vacation time each year. They've brought remote schools their first computers, started a preschool, paid for English-language tutors, dug a 250-foot well to provide water for 300 families in five drought-stricken villages, and run mobile eye clinics that have so far dispensed 25,000 used eyeglasses since 1995.

"Many people think to do good, you need to do big things. But you can do small things that make a big difference," said Niranjala, a researcher with the physiological sciences department. Through their Buddhist temple, the family helped raise money to build 37 homes for tsunami victims.

Recently Niranjala and Lokubanda, a visa specialist with the Dashew International Center for Students and Scholars, convinced government officials to allow 22 children of a once-nomadic group of families to attend school, despite lack of birth certificates. They are paying $3 a month per student to cover school expenses and are hoping to build the families simple shelters. "We work at UCLA. We have stable jobs. We're not super rich, but we are very, very happy people," Niranjala said.

To learn more about their work, go to www.empoweravillage.org.

UCLA International Institute