November 18, 2010

Student’s Foundation Sends 15,000 Books to Sri Lanka

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When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami swept through Sri Lanka –– damaging or destroying 168 schools in the country by World Bank estimates –– Sarasi Jayaratne ’12 saw a chance to make a difference. With the support of her Girl Scout troops, the then high school freshman founded the Keep Reading Foundation and began to collect and donate children’s books to schools in Sri Lanka. Since that time, the foundation has shipped more than 15,000 books to 48 schools in her native country.Though Sri Lanka’s official languages are Sinhala and Tamil, Jayaratne said that most of the country’s universities are modeled after the British educational system and teach in English. Rural children –– who have little exposure to English in understaffed schools –– rarely acquire fluency in the language, putting them at a severe disadvantage. By donating books to needy schools and helping them build libraries, Jayaratne hopes to encourage reading at a young age and prepare children to take classes later on in English.“The kids are the future generation –– they should have an equal opportunity in education,” Jayaratne said. “I know I’m very small and I want to take it one step at a time, but I hope to expand it [Keep Reading] beyond Sri Lanka to other parts of the world.” Jayaratne has given presentations to school principals, churches and community leaders around her home state of Virginia –– where the organization is currently based –– in the hope of encouraging book donations and helping to promote English literacy in Sri Lanka.Beyond reducing educational disparities between rural and urban children in Sri Lanka, Jayaratne also hopes to use English as a uniting force in the country.“Not only did Sri Lanka get affected by the tsunami, [but it] also had a three-decade civil war between the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups until 2009,” she said. “There’s still a lot of tension between the two groups, especially because they speak different languages; having English as a common ground can help break cultural barriers and ease the peace process.”Jayaratne –– who has gone to Sri Lanka three times since founding Keep Reading –– plans on making an additional trip to Sri Lanka during winter break to bring an additional 2,000 books to the country and eyeglasses for children with vision problems.To prepare for each trip, Jayaratne organizes donated books by grade level, packs them into boxes, and ships them to a contact from Keep Reading in Sri Lanka. When in the country, Jayaratne also helps distribute the boxes amongst schools in the countryside.“In terms of safety, the situation has gotten much better,” Jayaratne said. “In past trips, there were security checkpoints everywhere –– you had to bring your passport with you wherever you went.”Despite logistical and safety issues, having a chance to interact with the children she works with inspires her to continue her work.“They’re really shy but they’re so sweet –– I love when they smile,” Jayaratne said.Though Jayaratne said it has been “difficult” continuing her work away from Virginia, she maintains contact with community organizations by e-mail, and plans to give additional presentations in the area during Thanksgiving break.“All the donations are based in Virginia right now, but I also hope to be able to transition from Virginia to Ithaca,” Jayaratne said.Though Jayaratne said it may be challenging to establish another chapter of Keep Reading here because she’s a junior, but she added, “I really want to do a service project here –– I’m in the Sri Lankan Students Association, so I know we can do something and try to expand here.”

Original Author: Akane Otani