A novel picture book box project stimulates rural pre-schoolers
A little learning
By Vidushi Seneviratne
Building blocks, sand pits, the alphabet. ...some memories just don't go away. Those carefree pre-school years are definitely some of the best in anyone's life. Certainly for children in the cities, but what of young ones in the rural areas of this country?

The Surangani Voluntary Services (SVS), an NGO set up in 1992 by Ms. Shigeko Baba is working to create a better environment for pre-school children. Ms. Baba came to Sri Lanka initially in 1987 as a Japan Overseas Co-operation Volunteer. She has a M.S.C in Education, Culture and Society, from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.S.C. in International Relations from the Asia University, Tokyo, and is determined to channel her expertise for the benefit of under-privileged little ones.

They have so far worked with more than 5000 children and about 225 pre-schools, teachers and community resource persons. Not limited to the typical classroom activities, they also rebuild and develop rural pre-schools, organizing 'Shramadana' or community clean ups etc. They are also concerned about the status of pre-school teachers. Says Ms. Baba, "Teachers are an overlooked lot in Sri Lanka. Most of them are oppressed. Their economic situation too, should improve."

Established almost a decade ago, Surangani Voluntary Services has launched a new project to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Referred to as 'Ali pencha', this picture box book programme has proven to be an extremely effective way to improve children's visual literacy, creativity and imaginative thinking. Children are taught how to use books with care and respect.

Consisting of a wooden display box on wheels, designed to create the impression of a library, the box contains about 25-30 picture books. A box is usually given to one pre-school in a selected area, and is kept there for one month. During this period, children have access to the books and every child gets to take home a book over the weekend. After one preschool utilizes the picture book box, it is given to another pre-school of the area, and thus is shared among all the schools in the vicinity.

Some 14 boxes are being distributed in the trial process among schools such as Surangani Pre-School, Peliyagoda, Hangumi Pre-School, Godakawela and Piyasi Pre-School, Kirindiwela. One of Sri Lanka's most famous authors, illustrators and story tellers for children, Ms.Sybil Wettasinghe, has played an important role in designing this project.

The SVS team consists of just five members including director Ms. Baba. Chinthani Dharmasekara and Sharmalee Prathapasinghe are both pre-school education instructors, G.D. Siriwardene is the secretary, and Nalin Vipulendra co-ordinates all their projects and services.

Though a number of picture book boxes have been distributed, according to the members of SVS, 60 boxes are needed per year, to maintain an adequate service.

As always, the economic factor is an expected evil. To prepare one picture book box costs Rs.8000. About 60 donors from Japan do most of the funding for SVS, along with about five from the USA. But more funds are required to expand the project.

Penny-wise, pound foolish
If people in the city think they can save a large amount and stem their overdraft dependency by living in a village, perish the thought. It is not possible. Unless one doesn't mind being referred to as "tight fisted" . That does not mean that one has to make it plain that one is well endowed. No, that would be a hazard too.

Financial support, whenever the occasion demands, is what the village mainly seeks, and those occasions are numerous. Living in the village needs a great deal of diplomacy. Never count the cost. An open purse is always the passport to good relationships in the village. You will end up feeding a host of family members outside your own. That is why cutting your ties with the city is not recommended.

To all those who would like to live in the village - live a quiet, retired life and be a philanthropist on a limited budget: Make sure to give a special place to the word "simple" without being "austere". Occasionally when you feel the need of a good village diet, invite friends over from the city and ask some of the village women to cook for you. That way you can cut costs and keep living expenses manageable.

Remember, familiarity breeds contempt. Always seem friendly and approachable. But show a little reserve. Do not let them accost you on the road and make you give ear to their troubles.

If it is a financial situation you can tell them that your great-aunt is ailing and your expenditure at the moment is high, you are sympathetic and would like to help them... but this is all you can offer....

When someone does ask you for a loan don't pull your purse out immediately. You are in the village to live a simple, rural life. Be sure to always know the amount given by the village as a gift purse, and then give a little more. In our village if it's a bereavement it's Rs.100/-. And it's important how you conduct yourself - Go before the actual funeral takes place, (this is marking your attendance). Walk in quietly, there will be the usual pathos and drama as soon as you're sighted and look sympathetic, while the family members talk their grief out, then press a Rs.100/- quietly into the hand of the chief mourner and leave.

They will invite you for the 7 days, 3 months and the first anniversary remembrances. Don't think you can get away by giving some of the produce requested from your garden only. They always feed about 300 people. Give them at least Rs.500/-. If you do not help them, whom will you have?

Weddings too require at least Rs.500/-. Don't think of giving the couple gifts of bowls and cups that are still lying in your cupboard in their gift-wrappings. You can also give them that, but money is always appreciated. After all, they have to meet their expenditure too.

Then provision has also to be made for all those emergency loans. Start by having a little till, in which you can save at least Rs.50/- a week. No sooner you put it in, there will be a necessity to pull it out. Write it off as soon as you have given it. They think you can afford it, and they don't intend paying you back. If you think they will feel bad about asking you again, you've got to be naive. Most people tend to have a hole in their memory when it comes to returning money.

If you want to square up fairly, you are treading on a thorny path. You will become unpopular and help will not be forthcoming in your hour of need and they will turn sullen.

So the most you can do is always stay alert. Plan your itinerary away from the village during alms givings, weddings - of course you cannot anticipate a funeral, unless the person has been a long time dying. Good budgeting is always important.

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