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Small but mighty – Reflections on my trip to Sri Lanka

By Alia Whitney-Johnson, on her way home from a visit to Sri Lanka

I’m wide-awake when I should be sleeping. My mind is flooded with memories from the past 8 years – all of the ups and downs of building Emerge: first meeting the girls at that long, dimly-lit table; spending my 21st birthday playing musical chairs; wading through knee-deep water filled with rats to secure program supplies; the look on Sara’s* face when I would arrive at the home each day; dancing around my house on March 6, 2009, the day our US tax-exemption letter finally arrived; the day I decided to hire Nirukshi, our very first employee; the day that my beloved Medhani* was taken away… and then later ran away; the morning I discovered that not everyone in the NGO sector is well-intentioned;  the night of the air raid; the month when our community pulled together to raise funds so we would not close; the day Dushika’s* baby died; the moment I found out Melani* was building her very own house with her money from Emerge… so many ups and downs, so many memories. Many of you have been there through them all.

These memories are so much bigger than my own. Today, our team extends beyond me and even beyond the Emerge staff. Our team also includes volunteers, interns, mentors, teachers, and supporters. Every single person I met on this trip who has had the honor of meeting these young women has, like me, fallen in love with them.

Last year, one of our mentors, a bright architect named Nirosha, was inspired by a girl she had met through Emerge and her hunger to return to school. One weekend, she began to collect schoolbooks for the girls. But, Nirosha quickly realized that self-study wasn’t going to be enough to help these young women reclaim the education they had lost. After years of being removed from the education system, they needed much more. Nirosha went back to her own school, a school for gifted students who are identified in grade 6. She rallied her own teachers, some of the most-respected in the school, to come and meet the girls. She then proceeded to find corporate funding and secure sponsorship to launch the first-ever formal education program for these young women.

Pictured above: the dedicated teachers who are preparing the girls for their O-level exams

On Monday, I met with all 9 teachers who are helping a small group of our girls complete their O-levels (similar to the GED in the US). Some girls were 5-6 years behind when they returned to their studies last year. I’m happy to say that all girls are on target to pass their O-level exams this December and all are aiming for distinctions, often asking teachers to stay past 8pm at night. One teacher travels more than 3 hours to work with the girls and comes on Sundays for extra tutoring. A girl recently joined the program late, and the other girls have worked with her every night to help her catch up. She is now one of the highest performers. As these teachers shared their work, they spoke with tremendous love. They explained their initial hesitation and concern about teaching these girls – with the trauma they had endured, they were not sure how easy teaching would be. But all of them said that after 1-2 weeks with the girls, they couldn’t imagine not teaching them. They explained to me that they have become more than teachers – they are mentors and mothers: “every child is now our child,” they repeatedly said. They think of the girls when they are not in class, rally donations, and spend extra time with the girls whenever possible. “With education, these girls can face society,” they explained to me. I couldn’t agree more. I’m leaving Sri Lanka knowing that Emerge is more than an organization; it’s a community. I’ve never been more impressed by our team and am thrilled by the addition of our new National Coordinator, Mumtaz, who I know will take our work to the next level. And, even more importantly, I’m impressed by the love and support of those outside of our official team – the people who donate their love, time and energy to these girls every day and who have taken it upon themselves to grow our impact. I never could have expected this degree of support and love when I began 8 years ago. We may be small; but we are mighty. Thank you for all of the support, advice, and encouragement you’ve provided along the way. Emerge would not be here without each one of you. You should be proud of the organization and community we have built and will continue to build for these courageous young women. As I restlessly write this email from the plane, I cannot stop smiling. We did it! Alia *I have changed these names to protect the girl’s confidentiality

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