Books, Beads, And Life Skills

Sri Lankans are rightfully proud of our globally and regionally exceptional literacy rate (92.63 % as of 2015) and our constitutionally guaranteed access to primary education. However, beyond this, the conversation on how well our education system is doing by its participants produces a range of divided and impassioned opinions from all quarters. This is particularly true on the common battleground fronts of state examinations, access and approach to higher education, medical education, the teachings and omissions of our history, and sexual and reproductive rights education.

This, of course, makes working in this space, particularly outside of the government and non-government school designations, a tentative practice, yet Sri Lanka is home to an interesting plethora of supplementary and alternative educational pathways that are addressing need gaps in innovative ways worth the noting. The following is a starter overview of some such programmes:

Room To Read

Room to Read is an international NGO, founded in 1998 by American ex-Microsofter John Wood, following a trip to Nepal where he encountered a dearth and a desire for books in harder to access Himalayan-situated schools. As one of its 10 countries of operation, Room to Read Sri Lanka took root post-tsunami in 2005, working with the state mechanism in rebuilding infrastructure, particularly libraries, and bolstering teacher training at the primary school level. Having built an enviably symbiotic relationship with the government system, Room to Read has been able to expand across 1,700+ schools, particularly in the more remote areas of the districts of Anuradhapura, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Monaragala, and Colombo.

Inside a newly completed Room To Read Library in Anuradhapura. (Photograph by author on assignment for Room to Read in 2016)

Unique to its model is its commitment to work in the local languages (Sinhala and Tamil). Room to Read consults research and expertise in best practices into local language learning, working with local academics, authors, and artists to craft ad publish both text and reading books that have state approval for dissemination in the schools they work with, and ensure consistent teacher training and regular M&E’s of its classroom benchmarks. Furthermore, RtR has been thoughtful about creating community level buy-in to their projects, with the provision of 5-10% of funds/labour support for the infrastructure projects coming from parents themselves.

Students with their Room to Read-published Sinhala language textbooks. (Photograph by author on assignment for Room to Read in 2016)

Additionally, it has expanded in time to focus particularly on girls’ education at the secondary level ‒ an area where attrition starts to gather traction. Room to Read’s social mobilisers go beyond the classrooms and libraries to develop invested relationships with their participants, working with them and their parents to tackle obstacles to both attendance and engagement. At its Girls Education Programme (GEP) level, a life-skills component is brought in with discussions on decision-making, goal-setting, interpersonal skills including empathy, problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, and stress management. Also, thanks to an international level partnership with Hilton Hotels, RtR has been able to host hospitality job shadowing programmes as well.

Making her selection from RtR’s library offerings in local languages and English. Books are tiered so students can began at their ability level and work their way up in difficulty levels. (Photograph by author on assignment for Room to Read in 2016)

For more insights visit Room to Read on Facebook.

Tea Leaf Vision

Tea Leaf Vision (TLV) is a Maskeliya-based (and recently launched in Nuwara Eliya) career development project focused on providing an alternative route to continued education with a vocational preparation bent for those from the estate communities and surrounding areas. These are primarily people for whom the traditional educational pathway was not successful/suited/feasible for a number of compounding reasons, and this disenfranchisement has led to high rates of suicide, a propensity for alcoholism and environment of high domestic violence.

Tea Leaf Vision’s school in the hills. (Photograph by author in 2016)

Founded by British couple Tim Pare and Yasmene Shah, but currently headed on the ground by the exceptionally competent and inspiring 27-year-old Miranthi Pathirage (who over six years worked her way from admin assistant to principal), TLV seeks through the provision of an English language, IT and life-skills teaching (including financial management and entrepreneurship) to encourage hope and onward opportunity. Also, given the community issues previously mentioned, emotional health and personal development lessons are embedded throughout the one year full-time diploma programme.

Principal Miranthi addressing students at morning assembly (Photograph by author in 2016).

While the classroom teachers are graduates of the TLV (14 out of 16) committed to passing on their learning, or local teachers, the project supplements its desire to expose its student to native english speakers through a volunteer programme where visitors to Sri Lanka looking for a more service-oriented experience in the country can engage and support school learning activities.  Having visited the school, another thing that struck out was that exposure to visitors from various countries speaking English in a diversity of accents has led to TLV students being at ease with nuanced inflections in the language, something that is often a stumbling block to ESL learners.

What particularly struck the author as exciting about the project, however, was the respectful and allied interactions among gender and ethnicities within the programme (with female students and Tamil students featured in the majority).

TLV’s fully equipped computer lab with internet facilities, making sure their students have IT savvy required by workplaces today (Photograph by author in 2016).

The school is primarily supported by the Lebara Foundation, but also receives local support in funding and onward networks for employment of TLV graduates from Janashakthi Insurance, Berendina, and the Rotary Club of Colombo. Multiple Rotary clubs in the UK, as well as individuals, also offer support.

Emerge Lanka Foundation

Emerge Lanka has worked for over 11 years to address some of the many gaps in implementation of Sri Lanka’s child protection system ‒ specifically those affecting young women between the ages of 10-18, including the suspension of their access to public schooling when these courageous young women are placed in shelter care system as they wait to take on their abusers in court (this can take years).

Emerge’s vibrant Beads-to-Business jewellery made by the young women of the shelters it works with. (Photo provided by Emerge Lanka)

Emerge was founded by a then 19-year-old American, Alia Whitney-Johnson, while on a volunteer tsunami recovery trip, and today it’s led on the ground by the passionate Country Manager, Mumtaz Aroos Faleel. Alia began what is Emerge’s flagship Beads-to-Business programming, bringing the vibrancy and creativity of jewellery-making into shelters and using it as a stepping point to teaching entrepreneurship and financial acumen to young women. Emerge’s jewellery is sold at supporting partner retailers including Barefoot, Selyn, Buddhi Batiks, and Amanté, and the programme is both empowering and sustainable, with 50% of the proceeds going into savings for the girls for when they leave the shelter, and the remaining 50% being reinvested into the programme. For their singular approach and commitment in Sri Lanka, the foundation was awarded runner’s up at the international social impact competition Project Inspire in 2015 (run by UN Women and Mastercard).

Bead-to-Business brings design planning, entrepreneurship and financial management training to life. (Photo provided by Emerge Lanka)

As a long-envisioned need for the extension of their work, Emerge opened doors on its Centre for Reintegration in 2016. This unique pilot project provides a safe space for up to 16 young women at a time over 3-month stay periods, during which they will be engaged in transitional programming. This includes daily workshops on interpersonal skills, skills related to strengthening their employability (including IT and English training), critical life skills and in-house counseling. With the support of partners, it is also hoped participants will take part in a professional internship and placement programme.

Emerge’s new Centre for Reintegration. (Photo provided by Emerge Lanka)

Another factor about Emerge that stands out is its ability to have cultivated an extremely generous local donor base. The new centre is on a payment-free lease from a generous anonymous Sri Lankan donor, and its IT Lab equipment is provided by Ericsson Sri Lanka (the head of the organisation’s high school going daughter is an active supporter) and MAS’ Go Beyond programming.

Jehan Mubarak leads Colombo Round Table 1 in supporting Emerge with fundraising as well as discussing how men can be involved in allyship and advocacy on issues impacting women and girls. (Photo provided by Emerge Lanka)

Perhaps their most recent recognisable and vocal advocate however is national cricketer Jehan Mubarak who, along with the all men’s group of Colombo Round Table 1, has taken on a commitment to fund the centre’s operation and programme costs, while educating themselves and others on the integral role men can take on as genuine allies to issues impacting women and girls.

Watch the Emerge story here.

Other Programmes

While the author cannot speak of the following programmes from personal experience, most are well-established at making impactful work in their areas.

Chitra Lane & Sunera Foundation these well-known programmes support education and programming targeting special needs children and young adults and persons with disabilities.

The Music Project & Building Bridgesthe Music Project links schools in the North and the South through music education programming. They are linked with Building Bridges, which uses arts programming to promote creative education and peace-building dialogue in the north.

Building A Future Foundation

Conducting capacity building programmes on the oceanfront through vocational training and entrepreneurship programming, tied in with building a sustainable sailing culture in Sri Lanka.

If you know of any other similar programmes, feel free to let us know in the comments below.

Note: The author is the consultant Sri Lanka Outreach, Development and Admissions Director for the Asian University for Women (AUW) ‒ a regional international liberal arts university based in Bangladesh and attended by young women from 15 countries including Sri Lanka. Having previously led the university’s career development office she is connected with some of the 63 Sri Lankan AUWers thus far, many who were ESL students from all corners of the country. Included amongst them are a now University of Oxford Masters of Public Policy graduate, a Stanford grad, NGO programme managers, researcher, field staff (World Vision, Good Neighbors International, UN Volunteers), those supporting university faculties & secondary schools, and more.

She is currently collaborating with some of the organisations listed here in multiple capacities including to provide an option of further study via AUW for their participants.

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