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A Note From Emerge Lanka’s Recent Short Term Volunteer

The following blog was written by Frank Vargas, a recent short term volunteer for Emerge Lanka:

“Calm down,” said Rachael, the Emerge Country Director, laughing at my pallid expression as our taxi careened down a dimly lit road, “Things work differently here, but it’s ok.” I spent the hour-long drive from Colombo International Airport to the Emerge Apartment with my hands firmly gripping the armrests of our taxi, trying not to watch as we swerved around auto rickshaws, busses, and other cars with a seeming disregard for traffic laws. So began my vacation in Sri Lanka, visiting as a tourist and as a short-term volunteer for Emerge.

The taxi ride was harrowing, but it was a fair introduction to life in Sri Lanka working for Emerge. The local staff makes due with a life incredibly different from their working peers in the USA, and it’s impossible not to respect the sacrifices they make. Colombo can be a tough place to work. The sun beats down on the city mercilessly, and the traffic kicks up clouds of smog and dust that leave everything coated in a thin layer of grime. There are police stopping and searching traffic at checkpoints throughout the city. And worst of all, the beer is mediocre, the chocolate is laughable, and no one sells Diet Coke.

The Emerge staff work and live in an apartment in one of the suburbs of Colombo, sweating it out without air conditioning. The half-dozen ceiling fans strain to move the torpid, humid air. They do their laundry by hand, boil the water before they can drink it, and sleep under mosquito nets to get away from the insects. And every morning at 8:00 am, if not earlier, they are awakened by a marching band that practices for hours at a time in the field by their apartment. February’s selection was “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Every. Single. Day. No kidding.

But as tedious as their day-to-day life can be, the staff here light up whenever they talk about the girls. They’ll tell you stories about each of the girls in the program, and sometimes their children too. They’ve gotten to know each of them, and it makes me so happy to hear how invested they are in each of the girls’ success.

Running the Emerge program in Sri Lanka requires an incredible amount of work. Beads have to be shipped and sorted. Packages, labels, and brochures have to be designed and printed. Financial accounts have to be balanced between rupees and dollars, and the local staff has to be paid. They’ve designed a system to track and catalog every piece of jewelry to ensure every girl gets her fair payment, and they work every day to develop new ideas for their life skills curriculum, helping the girls learn how to survive on their own once they leave the homes where they’re living. Plus, the staff in Colombo has built a network of contacts with other organizations in Sri Lanka with similar missions to Emerge, and they regularly collaborate and look to one another for opportunities to do even more to help the girls.

What struck me most about the Emerge program was how constructively it helps the girls. Rather than simply funnel them money to support themselves and their children, it actually teaches them a skill set (jewelry making) and gives them the knowledge about finances, budgeting, health, and job hunting that they will need to be successful on their own. Moreover, I’ve seen how selflessly the Emerge staff works to find new ways to improve the program and make it even more successful.

Running a charity is tough, demanding work. But add to that the difficulty of living and working half a world away, in a distant and unfamiliar country, and the successes of the Emerge program become even more astounding. I am proud to have contributed my time in support of Emerge, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same. If you’re interested in volunteer opportunities, you can email Rachael at -Frank Vargas

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