Chris Stubbs left England 21 years ago for a two-year charity placement in Sri Lanka.

He’s still there with his own charity, a Sri Lankan family and an MBE. He explains his adventure to Owen Amos.

FRIDAY, February 6, 1987. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Ronald Reagan was US President, and Liverpool were league champions.

And, at Teesside Airport, a 32- year-old social worker from Billingham set off for a two-year placement in Sri Lanka.

More than 21 years on, that man hasn’t worked in England since. He runs a charity that cares for 1,500 young, disabled Sri Lankans each day, has a Sri Lankan wife and two children and speaks – just about – the language.

Oh, and he’s popping back soon to pick up an MBE. Chris Stubbs left Billingham for adventure. Safe to say he found it.

“It was ’86, ’87, and there was the Bob Geldof thing, the Ethiopia thing, Live Aid,” he says.

“We were in our late 20s, early 30s, and we thought the way Thatcher was running the country, we could do more away from it than we could in it. We thought we could get away for a couple of years, charge the batteries, then come back and start again.”

He speaks on the phone from Nuwara Eliya, 5,500 miles away and 6,000ft up in Sri Lanka’s green, central, tea-growing country. In short, a long way from Billingham. Nuwara Eliya’s where he started in 1987, a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas. “I could have gone anywhere,” he says. “It just so happened it was Sri Lanka.” His first task was workshops for government staff. Problem was, no one came.

“Instead, we worked with unemployed Sri Lankan women, aged 18 to 20, to see how they could get involved in the community,” he says.

“One of the ideas that came out was there were no services for young disabled people or children with learning difficulties. We knew six families that had disabled kids, put the idea to them and they seemed keen. It was January 1988 and we started with six families.”

So when did he realise he would stay longer than two years? When did the vacation become a vocation?

“Probably the beginning of the second year when we had 25, 30 children,” he says. “By the third year, there were 52. Before, there were no resources, now kids were coming from all over Sri Lanka.”

As well as the growing band of disabled youngsters, Chris had another reason to stay: his wife, Ranji. “She was originally my translator in the women’s group,” he says. “About six months in, we fell in love. We got married, and have two children, Mario and Enya. Mario works in Colombo (the capital), and Enya has just finished her London O-levels.”

The day centre at Nuwara Eliya, which has 500 children, is split into different units: a mixed preschool for three to six-yearolds with and without disabilities, an educational unit for six to 15-year-olds with Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy, brain damage, and learning difficulties, a butterfly group for children with severe learning difficulties and a vocational section for 16 to 20-year-olds with learning difficulties. After Boxing Day 2004, a similar centre was established in tsunami-hit Batticaloa, on the east coast. It has around 1,000 children.

They originally “beg, stole and borrowed”

to fund the centre, says Chris. Save The Children UK then gave a grant and, since then, Terre des Hommes Netherlands, an international children’s charity, has funded the project.

They’ve come a fair way from six children in 1988. “To be honest, you don’t think about it until people like you ask the question,” he says.

“When you have the time, you realise we’ve come a long way. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We’re all very proud of what we’ve achieved. Some of the women who started with us 20 years ago are still with us – I think that says a lot about how we work as a team and as a family.”

So, in those 20 years, what are the highlights?

“When we have been able to get disabled kids and young people into employment – in an area where there is high unemployment,” he says.

Then, in May, Dr Christopher Malcolm Stubbs was made a Member of the British Empire for “services to mentally handicapped children and families in Sri Lanka”. Chris, like most recipients, is modest.

“I had telephone call from the British Ambassador here,” he says. “He said I’d been awarded the MBE and would I accept it. I said yes, he said congratulations. But it’s not for me – it’s for Ranji, Mario and Enya, my mam, dad, my brother Derek and family in Billingham, and everyone who works for and supports Mencafep.”

Sri Lanka, of course, is beset by terrorism. The Foreign Office warns, gravely, “there is a high threat in Sri Lanka”. The Tamil Tigers, who want an independent Tamil state, control large parts of the north and east. Their bombs generally target government positions, but – increasingly – civilians are attacked. In June, for example, a roadside bomb killed at least 21 people and injured 50 more on a bus near Colombo. Is it time to come back?

“I would never say no,” says Chris. “My mam and dad are back in Billingham and all my family.

I visit once a year and mam and dad come out once a year. You never know what’s going to happen in Sri Lanka, so I’d never say I wouldn’t come back. But we still have a lot to do here. The funding’s tied up for the next three years at least.

“Thinking back, it’s a strange thing. I’d never been further than Europe –- Spain, for the 1982 World Cup – and I came to Asia not knowing what to expect. Coming here makes you very humble. You share your life with them and you certainly start to understand yourself a lot more. Sri Lanka has given me more than I have given it.”

■ For information on Chris’s charity, and to donate, visit