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Progress in Sri Lanka

Progress in Sri Lanka is slow but it occurs nonetheless. It’s a hot day here. I’m not sure whether that is because I just returned from a quick trip to England (for an interview) or if it is because we are approaching April which is arguably one of the hottest months here and also when the rains begin again. Perhaps it is some of both. Jet-lagged from yesterday’s flight and sweating, I pulled into Ma-Sevana and one girl called out that I had arrived. Before I knew it, girls began to come out of the woodwork, each holding a precious bag of beads. I had done an experiment with them last week, trusting them to do some work on their own, and their excited arrival was a testament to my experiment’s success.

Last week I realized that it was time for the girls to start doing their work when I am not there. They have begun to rely on me to fix their problems and I want to make sure that they know they can do this on their own. Afterall, they will have to make their products on their own when I come home. I first asked the matron if she would open their locker of beads on Saturday when I was away in England so that they could do some work. But, she was hesitant to take on the responsibility. I began to fear that I was going to face problems with ensuring the program’s sustainability. During my last trip, one of the matrons loved making jewelry so she was happy to help the girls. But, this time the matrons are much less interested. So, I decided to do an experiment that several people advised me against. I gave the beads to the girls themselves to watch. If we can build a system that they monitor completely themselves, we can both insure the sustainability of the program and simultaneously are empowering the girls to take care of themselves and each other and learn about responsibility.

The girls lined up last week, nervous and giddy to be given responsibility. One girl was in charge of a single pair of pliers that they would all share to each make a bracelet while I was gone. You may be thinking, “Alia, a single bracelet? What’s the big deal with that?” But, when you consider giving each girl a bag with more than enough beads for a bracelet, it could be a disaster if none of the bags came back. Still, I knew it was time. I weighed out their beads and told them that they were responsible for ensuring that all the beads came back and that the beads and final product should match the same weight. If they didn’t, they would miss our next class. I knew this experiment would be rather telling. Part of me was afraid it would be a disaster but I needed to know so that I can design this system to work by the time I leave.

Well, I am happy to say that every bead was accounted for (amazingly! Not a single girl lost her supplies!) and each girl made a beautiful bracelet and was extremely proud to show me today. I cannot be more excited. Today I allowed the girls to take two pairs of pliers and two new girls will be watching them this week. This responsibility will continue to rotate so that all girls have the responsibility of monitoring the tools. The girls will make 2 bracelets over the weekend before next Wednesday’s class.

This actually feels like a really big achievement to me. For the first time, I am able to witness them organizing themselves, them working when they would like to work, them taking complete ownership in the process and running it without the support of the supervising matron or me. I see tremendous potential for this system of organization. Victoria’s Secret has agreed to give each girl her own tool box that will lock and she will be able to keep her beads and other precious items in this box. There is something very important, in my opinion, about having something to call your own, having a sense of personal space and privacy, and a place to store meaningful items that can be remembered forever. I am quite excited about providing this for each of the girls.

So, things are progressing beautifully. I have been working with a woman from Victoria’s Secret to design small square drawstring bags out of a very simple cotton material. I am planning to open bank accounts for a group of handicapped girls (most are deaf) at Sarvodaya’s Vocational training center and paying them to sew the bags. A local artisan is working on a very traditional, ethnic image that we will screen print onto the bags. Victoria’s Secret is donating the silk screens, printing ink, material, and drawstrings and is having their silk screening department teach a course to the girls at the vocational training center on silk screening. I think this is a really exciting development for the project! We’ve found a way to support a whole new group of at-risk girls. Eventually, they are hoping that some of the girls from Ma-Sevana may also come and do a jewelry workshop with these girls to allow them to start making jewelry for export as well.

Limited Brands, the group that owns the Limited, Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works and many more, has an annual field day in May where they sell products from all of their different charity projects. So, we are currently aiming to have many products and the program rather complete by the end of April in time to export for this event. I think I will be back in the US around May 1st.

On a more heart-felt level, Tharanga has returned home to live with her aunt now that her baby is gone. I miss her and am encouraging Sarvodaya to conduct follow-up visits. Priyanthi and Damayanthi are preparing to leave and Ma-Sevana is preparing for new girls to enter. Nanda had a baby two weeks ago who is growing beautifully and has a thick head of hair (which Nanda is incredibly proud of). Medani and Roshenara keep trying to convince me to bring them back to the States when I return. In general, my girls are doing well.

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