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Giving: Learning by
teaching in Sri Lanka

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srilankamapEditor’s note: A local group led by Naresh Gunaratnam, an Ann Arbor physician, is committed to helping the more than 60 orphaned girls and destitute elders at the Grace Care Center in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, where a 25-year-long civil war ended in 2009. Gunaratnam has rallied support from University of Michigan medical and business students students, who have traveled to Grace and worked on various projects, but the most rewarding exchange might be the one that occurs weekly via Skype between local high school girls and their counterparts at Grace. It’s part of project “Hope Rising,” started two years ago at the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education, an alternative high school, with help from the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor West. The local girls teach English language skills to the girls in Sri Lanka, and a lot of cultural tidbits are exchanged along the way. Below, In this month’s “giving back” feature column, we learn more from people involved in the project.

How often do locals visit Sri Lanka and Grace?

Gunaratnam: We have an annual summer trip. Last year, nearly 40 people from Ann Arbor volunteered, including 15 kids. The kids built a basketball court, played with the kids and taught them how to set up email accounts and use them.

What role does the Rotary Club play?

Bruce Dunbar, Rotarian: After a presentation to the (being-formed) Rotary Club of Ann Arbor West by Naresh, many of the members were thrilled by the possibility of connecting the girls here in Washtenaw County with the girls in other parts of the world. After visiting Grace in August 2013, Julie Dunbar and I (both charter members of Rotary West) joined the board of directors of VeAhavta (the Ann Arbor-based 501(c)3 which helps run Grace). We were followed a year later by Raj Bazaj (also a charter Rotary member and current president). We each witnessed firsthand the vast potential benefit the girls in Sri Lanka could gain with better English skills coupled with computer skills and more advanced education opportunities.

How have the WAVE girls benefited from the interaction?

Dunbar: The girls from WAVE visit Rotary West every few weeks to present an update on the program and their experiences. During a recent update, a shy, reserved girl stood up and spoke eloquently about her experiences. She explained that the girls don’t even need the moderator/teacher anymore. They are conversing well on their own. She and all the girls feel so proud to be friends and teachers to the girls in Sri Lanka. She personally has a different perspective on her place in the world. She thought she knew all about life but because of Grace she understands better that what we think of as difficulties pale in comparison to others. The girls in Sri Lanka love everything about the program. They get their basic education through the schools there but now they are also getting an English speaking education. Learning English will help them have more job opportunities as tourism picks up again in their area. They are looking forward to a better future because of Grace.

A trip is planned for the WAVE students to visit Sri Lanka to meet face-to-face with the girls in the orphanage. When is it, how much will it cost and how will it be funded?

Gunaratnam: July 25 to Aug. 8. The travel costs are approximately $2,000 per person. We’re trying to fund four kids and two teachers. To contribute, visit gofundme.com/srilankatrip.

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