Teaching English to orphan girls in Sri Lanka

One of the volunteers, Owen, and I teach numbers to the younger girls by playing a game they love called Flying Hats.

I came to Kegalle to volunteer with elephants, but Inspire Sri Lanka also supports a girls orphanage that’s just down the road from their elephant park. A few times each week, after a morning of dirty work with the elephants, I gather with the other volunteers to create our lesson plan for teaching. We come up with activities to do with the girls at the orphanage, who range from 7 to 15 years old. We teach the younger girls basic math and English vocabulary, while the older girls learn geography, reading and writing.  

All of the girls at the orphanage are bright and well mannered. They rush up to us volunteers when we arrive each visit, and although they know little English, they reach far into their vocabulary to find ways to communicate. They ask me if I have a sister or brother. When I tell them I have a brother, they ask his name. I tell them “Michael,” and it fascinates them that my brother has the same first name as Michael Jackson. I learned very quickly that their connection with the United States is Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber. 

As one of the older girls grabs a marker and starts coloring my finger nails, they tell me, “you are very beautiful.” I tell them they are beautiful too. Then we just spend time smiling at each other, smiles being a universal language.

I ask for a tour of the orphanage and they proudly show me around. The 45 girls share two large bedrooms (one for the big girls and one for the little girls), a large classroom, a kitchen (no appliances, just cabinets and a fire place), a two-stall bathroom with squatting toilets (Inspire Sri Lanka aims to install western toilets when they have the money), a large playground and a vegetable garden. Their orphanage is fortunately very adequate, and they have supplies and toys and clean conditions. But, I can quickly identify the kids each time I visit by their clothing because they wear the same clothes almost everyday. Thankfully, Inspire Sri Lanka recently provided them with a washing machine. Can you imagine that up until then, all 45 girls hand washed their clothing!

One of two rooms at the orphanage.

The orphanage is government sponsored, though they run on donations. The girls come from broken homes. One of the oldest girls tells me “My mother no, my father no. My mother die, my father die.” 

The orphanage brings the girls a good life and education. But the girls receive very little individual attention. This is why their contact with the volunteers is so special. Ordinarily, their life is one big assembly line. Each girl follows the same schedule, eats the same food, follows the same rules and has the same haircut. There is no one-on-one attention for these children and no individuality. 

When volunteers visit, we have the opportunity to change this for a few hours of their day. We come up with creative ways to have fun and interact. The girls brought up Michael Jackson so much, we decided to perform a dance routine to “Thriller” for them. We also play schoolyard games like “Stuck in the Mud.”

The girls heard I like dancing and eagerly asked me to show them dance moves. So all of the volunteers agreed it would be fun to do some American dancing: the Electric Slide, the Cupid Shuffle and the Tootsie Roll! The British volunteers here had never heard of these dances, so it turns out I got to educate everyone on this unique aspect of American culture. We volunteers have just as much fun as the kids!

Inspire Sri Lanka’s volunteer coordinator Aravinda Rathnayake said, “It’s like [the orphans] live in a cage, they have no experience with the outside world.” Unfortunately, the girls have no Internet access, so there is not much to help them prepare for lives when they move on from the orphanage. Inspire Sri Lanka is a new organization and they're looking for volunteer ideas and feedback. One of my suggestions is that the girls must learn how to use computers and start exploring the Internet. So we set a goal to have one computer in place for the girls to start using, and we'll have them keep in touch with volunteers via email. This will enable the girls to practice English while learning basic computer skills. From there, hopefully, they can start using the Internet to enhance their education.

In the meantime, we've started a good old-fashioned pen pal program between the orphans and students from my cousin’s fourth grade class in Virginia Beach, Va. I carried letters that the American kids wrote with me when I flew over and handed them out during our second day of volunteering. In the letters, the American kids talked about weather and hobbies and asked the girls questions about their lives in Sri Lanka. The girls were so eager to write back, they couldn’t wait for us to hand them paper and pencils! 

Spending time with the girls has left a lasting impression on me, one that will not let me forget them when I am home. I will have to come up with practical ways to help them in some small way from afar. And hopefully, this post will encourage more volunteers to join Inspire Sri Lanka to support the orphanage.