ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, Octomber 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20

Bringing fun and laughter to a place of sad memories

American University students help build a play park in Hambantota at the site of a market place washed away in the 2004 tsunami

By Zack Taylor

HAMBANTOTA—Seven students from an American University volunteered for an unusual overseas development project and found that something as simple as building a play park for children could have a profound impact on themselves and the local community.

The team members themselves dug into the rock-hard soil of a former market site and transformed it into a state-of-the-art play park. The park is one of 85 that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is building in tsunami-affected districts to help restore communities to normalcy, and especially to help children overcome the psychological trauma of the event through “play therapy.” The $2 million project is co-funded by USAID, the Jewish Joint Distribution Centre, and the Bush-Clinton Tsunami Fund.

Students from Oral Roberts University who constructed the Hambantota playground and friends include: (from second left) Rachel Hansen, Kelly Chase, Vince Narciso, Ruby Libertus (advisor), Alina Pedigo, William Jones, Michale Robinson, and Sara Mazzurcca (in bandana).

A young professor of international development at Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ruby Libertus, brought the students to Sri Lanka. Ruby is of Sri Lankan-Finnish descent and grew up all over the world. But she spent enough time in Sri Lanka to absorb the culture and language, and considers the country her homeland.

“I was devastated to see the affects of the tsunami on Sri Lanka, which is an important part of my heritage,” Ruby said. “I felt helpless, and wanted to do more for the people, but I had made a commitment to the university.”

ORU provided an opportunity for her to return to Sri Lanka as part of a new overseas volunteer project for interested students. Ruby suggested the play parks in Sri Lanka for the project. “I’m naturally biased, but I felt in my heart it should be some sort of tsunami relief in Sri Lanka,” she said. The university liked the idea and soon a team of seven volunteers, mostly development or international relations students, assembled. Each team member raised $3,200 in donations to finance the trip.

At the end of the school year in 2006, the ORU team arrived in Sri Lanka and USAID staff facilitated the team’s work for a play park in Hambantota.

Team leader Sara Mazzucca, 23, had just graduated from ORU with a degree in development and the project gave her a keen awareness of the realities of working internationally. In the face of such a tragedy, she said, no amount of work can truly restore what the people have lost. “We tried to help, but as much as we did, we couldn’t give them their lives back. But USAID did help us to contribute as Americans, and we’re really proud of that.”

The community took a keen interest in what the young foreigners were doing, watching, honking horns, and waving at them. Soon after, friendships were forged and local residents shared their stories of the tsunami. “One man told us about his 14-year-old son who died here,” said Michale Robinson, a 23-year old senior majoring in communications and business management, who had done development work but not outside the U.S. “He told us he wanted the park to last forever as a memorial to his son.”

Challenges to completing the park included land ownership issues and obtaining sand, as sand available for building has been in short supply since the tsunami. Sara said that she learned a lot about how challenging it is to get things done. She said she was inspired by the work of Ravina Deepanayana, team leader for Sarvodaya, USAID’s implementing partner, who worked tirelessly to obtain the necessary authorizations for the project.

The team agreed that there were many rewards, including the unsolicited assistance and cooperation they received from the people of Hambantota. Three-wheeled taxi drivers helped them hunt down necessary equipment, women brought refreshments of bananas and thambili, and even the mayor of Hambantota visited the project site and invited Ruby and Sara to his home.

The residents were fascinated by this group of young women and men digging in the dirt and moving equipment, and offered to lend a hand.

“I think our work ethic really shone through and brought the team together,” said Vince Narciso, 24, a senior majoring in international relations. “If we had come to boss people around and not work hard, they wouldn’t have tried either. But they saw that we were a dedicated team. We got a lot done together with our local friends, whether or not we could communicate verbally.”

The real satisfaction was the response of the local children, who wanted to get to the equipment even before it was completely and safely installed. “There were hundreds,” said Vince. “We were hard-pressed to keep them away from the site until we had finished.”

“I wanted to inspire the students to understand development,” Ruby said. “Building a play park isn’t a typical project. But in this case, we felt like we were restoring a little life in a place that had previously represented tragedy and sadness.”

Top to the page

Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.