A Few Words Go a Long Way

Sri Lanka, May 11, 2005

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nine-year-old Kovitha holds a picture from her Scottish pen pal, nine-year-old Elizabeth. Mercy Corps worked with a school in Scotland to set up the heartwarming exchange. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

The din of over a hundred kids packed into a makeshift school building was building to a roar. According to Thulasimani, a second-grade teacher at Komari School, it is usually noisy but this was something different.

“There is an excitement in the air,” she said.

Mercy Corps had arrived to distribute a very special package: letters from school children at the Law Primary School in North Berwick, Scotland.

For the Sri Lankan children who attend Komari School, distributions have become a fairly regular event. Most of the children at Komari School were displaced by the devastating tsunami that struck their village in December 2004. The children have received distributions that included school kits, food and clothing, tents and other basic items to help them and their families survive after the tsunami destroyed their homes and schools and swept away most of their possessions.

But this distribution was something special and eagerly anticipated by the children who lined up to receive a letter.

As the letters were distributed to the children, an unusual hush descended. The children were too busy reading their letters to talk. The only sound was the flipping of pages as they eagerly examined the letters.

“I have a new friend from very far away,” said Kovitha, age nine. “She didn’t even know me, but she wrote me a letter and drew me a pretty picture!”

Kovitha received a letter from Elizabeth, also nine years old, as part of a pen-pal program between Law Primary School in Scotland and Komari School in Sri Lanka.

A fun and healthy diversion

The pen pal project started as a result of coincidence and compassion. In January, students in Jackie Boyd’s class at Law Primary School were discussing the devastating tsunami. Megan Jarvie, one of the students in Miss Boyd’s class, mentioned that her uncle was working with Mercy Corps to help the tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka.

Miss Boyd was quick to see if there was a way her students could use this connection to get involved and show their support to the kids who had been affected by the disaster. She thought a pen pal project would be valuable for both the Sri Lankan children and the students in her class.

Mercy Corps was running several programs to assist children and re-start the educational system in the wake of the tsunami. The organization provided temporary shelter to schools for classrooms, provided transportation for children and teachers to go to school, distributed basic school supplies to students and offered psycho-social programs to help children overcome their fears and anxieties and return to school.

“The pen pal proposal from Law Primary School immediately appealed to us as a great opportunity to offer Sri Lankan school children a fun and healthy diversion from their worries and daily struggles,” said Vijitha Krishnamoorthy, Mercy Corps’ Psycho-Social Manager in Pottuvil.

A breath of fresh air

Soon the kids in Miss Boyd’s class were all penning letters, while in Sri Lanka the Mercy Corps team was working to introduce the idea to the Komari School teachers and organize volunteer staff to translate the letters from English into Tamil so the Sri Lankan children could read their letters.

The fat bundle of letters that arrived from Scotland was like a breath of fresh air for the kids in Komari. Each letter came with a photograph of the child who wrote the letter, and most of the letters included colorful drawings of the children’s pets, families and personal interests.

Anitas, a twelve-year-old boy at Komari School, had been very withdrawn and quiet since the tsunami destroyed his home. But after getting a letter from Gregor, a boy at Law Primary School, his teacher said he was suddenly smiling.

“These letters have changed the children’s minds for the better. Many of them seem truly happy for the first time since the tsunami,” said one teacher.

Mercy Corps will be working with the children at Komari School to send back a package of letters back to Scotland in the coming weeks. Kovitha already has an idea of what she wants to write to her new friend.

“Elizabeth wrote me and asked if I have any pets,” said Kovitha. “I want to tell her all about my dog.”

Anitas gripped his letter tightly and said he just wanted to say thank you to the children in Scotland. The smile on his face and the hope in his eyes said all that and much more.