Last week I celebrated my first quarter with Emerge Lanka alongside Nirukshi and Iroshini. As a team we evaluated our progress on goals that we had set for ourselves in my first team meeting, and created new goals to strive for in our second quarter together. Reflecting on the past three months, we paused to appreciate just how much has happened! With support from the J. Kirby Simon Foreign Service Trust, we’ve had cupboards installed in the Panadura shelter so that the girls can have a space of their own to keep their personal items. To the absolute delight of the girls, we distributed 200 donated books from Room to Read to each home. We have also increased awareness of Emerge locally, with events and sales in Sri Lanka combined with positive media and the initiation of a mentorship program.
On a personal level, I’ve also experienced many moments that have stayed with me and resurfaced in my thoughts throughout my time here. I will share one with you now.
One day we were teaching a lesson that reviewed how to use the Emerge Store vouchers. We noticed that most of the girls were struggling with basic math. Although my Sinhala isn’t strong enough to explain the logic behind the calculations, I began to go around the room alongside Nirukshi and Iroshini and teach the 10x table by pattern recognition (i.e. for 2×10 = 20, I underlined the 2s in one color and the 0s in another color, and then copied that format for 20×10, 200×10 etc.). At first the girls looked overwhelmed by the numbers, but in about two minutes their eyes would light up and it would click. They could do it. At the end of the table sat one of the girls who tends to struggle with our lessons far more than the others. She is tiny, quiet and seemingly more fragile than her rambunctious peers. I began teaching her math the same way I had taught all of the other girls and she immediately looked flabbergasted. She said to me in Sinhala “I can’t do this. All I can do is draw.” I replied “but you can learn!” and she looked at me like I just told her she could go to the moon. I asked her to write the number 2. As she began scrawling illegible scribbles on the page, I suddenly realized: this child cannot write. She is probably 15 years old and cannot write the number 2. After digesting this moment, I wrote a giant number 2 on her page and asked her again to copy it. She couldn’t. So I took her hand and together we gently and methodically traced the giant number 2. When we were done I let go of her hand. I looked at her and her face broke into a smile as wide as the ocean with eyes of disbelief as she stared in amazement at her accomplishment. She did it! I think a lot about that day. I often reflect on how little time (and language skills) it took to teach a basic lesson that will help these girls forever. I recognize that knowing the 10x tables isn’t life changing, but it is something. And it’s more than just knowing that 30×10 = 300. It’s the confidence that comes from knowing that they can do that calculation. That feeling of aptitude is what makes the difference. That’s empowerment. That’s opportunity. That’s hope.