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"When you give time and not just money, you’re really investing your life in somebody else’s life. That has been an important part of my faith… to give my time."
Eric Rajah is the compassionate co-founder and motivating force behind A Better World, an Alberta-based, volunteer-run aid organization. Thanks to Eric’s thoughtful leadership the organization has delivered invaluable, life-changing support to people in need around the world.
Eric was born in Sri Lanka on January 12, 1958 to Florence and M.S. Rajah. The relatively comfortable middle class circumstances he was born into would have been vastly different had it not been for Alberta missionaries who travelled from Lacombe to Sri Lanka in the late 1940’s to set up a school. Eric’s mother and her siblings lived in the community that received the precious gift of education and their schooling broke the cycle of poverty that affected so many in the region. Eric and his two brothers followed in their mother’s footsteps and Eric enjoyed school, particularly the classes that allowed him to add English to the Tamil his family spoke at home.
When Eric was a teenager the Rajahs immigrated to Canada. He arrived in Vancouver in 1974 with his mother and brothers, joining his father who had come years prior in order to sponsor the family. Although it was a challenging adjustment for his parents they happily rode out any difficulties in order to ensure the best possible education and future for their sons. Eric completed high school and enrolled in business classes at the University of British Columbia. In 1978, he transferred to what was then Canadian Union College in Lacombe, Alberta as a way to give back to the missionaries and the Seventh-day Adventist Church that had so dramatically changed his family’s fortunes decades earlier. Eric worked his way through school and graduated in 1981 from the institution that was later renamed Canadian University College (CUC).
Eric began his career with the intention of becoming a chartered accountant. He gained work experience as a student finance officer for CUC before moving to a job with an accounting firm in Red Deer, where he discovered that he didn’t actually enjoy pouring over financial records. He wanted to work face-to-face with the people he served. Since he was already the go-to person for colleagues needing computer help, Eric set his sights on what was then an emerging field. He learned everything he could about various software systems and continued to work part-time at the firm while launching his own computer training centre in Red Deer. Eric also made some significant changes on a personal level. He became a Canadian citizen in 1984 and married Lacombe native and fellow church member, Candi Schafer, in 1985.
Success with the computer business soon led to offices in Lacombe and Stettler and the addition of a sales and service division. In 1990, Eric christened the growing enterprise Advanced Systems. At the same time, Eric and Candi began talking about saving money so that they could begin helping others when they retired. After realizing that retirement was still many years off they resolved to start giving back right away, even if it meant doing so on a smaller scale. They took $5,000 in savings and began talking about how and where to best share the funds. Eric also discussed options with close friend Brian Leavitt and the two developed the concept of A Better World. They launched the organization in 1990, with a focus on investing in the future of people in need in Third World countries. The first project was a modest plan for a physiotherapy centre to serve young, marginalized polio victims living in Kendu Bay, Kenya. New schools were soon added to the project list. Taking those first steps with A Better World was a transformative experience for Eric. In describing the change, he says, “When I saw how these two small things could make such a difference I was reminded of where I came from and I saw how little I was prepared to give. It was a true turning point for me and I began to reprioritize my life.”
The original goal of A Better World was to fund 10 projects at a cost of $5,000 each. That goal expanded over the years to several million dollars in annual investments. As donations and project plans grew, Eric established a clear philosophy for A Better World. All funds raised would go directly to projects, with administrative help and expertise provided by Eric’s business and volunteers. The focus would be on improving quality of life by providing education, health, food security, infrastructure and income-generating projects. No project would go ahead without the involvement of the community as a whole, and community members would play a hands-on role in building a stronger future for themselves and their families. A Better World would also work to stay with a community over a period of time, developing projects to meet a range of needs and bringing in various volunteers and experts to train workers in the community. In short, it would be a highly compassionate organization but also one focused on generating maximum return on every dollar donated by investing in people so that the positive changes created could be sustainable well into the future.
It’s a model for giving that has resonated with Eric’s fellow Albertans and produced tremendous results. By 2011, the scope of A Better World had expanded to serve 15 countries including Afghanistan, Belize, Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Tibet. Since 1990, countless individuals have seen their quality of life change dramatically thanks to community improvements funded by A Better World and a groundswell of volunteer support has resulted in thousands of individuals agreeing to pay their own travel costs in order to work with communities being served. The very long roster of volunteers has drawn heavily from central Alberta, including Candi and the couple’s two sons, Brenden and Jaden, who have played active roles at the Lacombe office and overseas.
A Better World also makes investments closer to home. When Eric realized that Lacombe, Louisiana was one of the communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 he was moved to help the “sister town” and coordinated a five-year campaign to rebuild 29 homes in the community. There is a local division of A Better World to help people in need in Lacombe and central Alberta, and Eric has further contributed to his community as an active member of various Lacombe and central Alberta service organizations, as a board member of his church and as a regular visitor to local seniors to share his love of music.
Eric continues to be motivated and inspired by the marginalized children he sees during his trips overseas and is increasing the time and focus he lends to mentoring young Albertans. In 2011 he launched a youth division of A Better World which works with schools and universities to engage the next generation of community leaders. Eric is highly enthusiastic about what he’s witnessing with Alberta youth noting “they’re thinking about global citizenship and a connected world with less and less separation...and that gives me hope for the future.”