Seeing some of the little ones in underprivileged areas of the country taking their school books to school in ‘sirisiri bags’ broke Shigeko Baba’s heart. “I just could see the pain written all over their little faces especially when they were ridiculed by their better-off counterparts,” remembers Shigeko who initiated the educational foster programme — [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

All for the little ones

From SMILES to Alipencha, Shigeko Baba’s service of three decades in the country has been for underprivileged children

Volunteers at the SVS office in Nawala

Seeing some of the little ones in underprivileged areas of the country taking their school books to school in ‘sirisiri bags’ broke Shigeko Baba’s heart. “I just could see the pain written all over their little faces especially when they were ridiculed by their better-off counterparts,” remembers Shigeko who initiated the educational foster programme — SMILES which provides underprivileged children school materials including bags, shoes and stationery. This foster programme is supported by donors and each donor receives a letter and art work from the sponsored child.

SMILES is just one of the many efforts that Japanese educationist Shigeko Baba has been responsible for in her 30-year association with Sri Lanka. Shigeko first arrived here in 1987 as a JAICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) volunteer and served Yoshida Pre-school in Sapugaskanda and later Surangani Pre-School in Peliyagoda, which she set up with a group of friends. For her the stay opened vistas beyond a volunteer’s stint and took her life on a path of helping the children of this land.

Alipencha (Little Elephant) is a small picture book library contained in a wooden display box on wheels. These portable library boxes contain 25-30 high quality picture books in each. “We distribute these books to remote village preschools where access to reading material is limited. Alipencha project enables children to bring a picture book home every weekend and thereby promote family interaction through story-telling and sharing,” notes Shigeko who remembers the generous contribution of well known writer and illustrator Sybil Wettasinghe to this project. “Sybil nenda has done some masterpieces for us with so much love,” says Shigeko whose three-decade association with the country has made her master the vernacular. The project not only focuses on literacy but also develops creativity and confidence in children notes the educator who discourages ‘formal literacy instruction’ in early childhood development.

Shigeko Baba was 36 years old when she enrolled herself at the Asia University in Tokyo to read for her degree. Feeling quite at home with her fellow batchmates who were almost half her age, Shigeko specialized in International Relations. “When others were quite thrilled over a cancellation of a lecture so that they could be frolicking, I was quite disappointed that I was missing a class,” smiles the soft-spoken lady recollecting her undergraduate days. She adds, “For me parties held no interest at that age and what excited me was the fact that life had offered me a chance to learn, learn and learn.”

Packing peanuts in Buttala: A helping hand for the community

“I wanted to return to Sri Lanka to be of better service and I thought that an academic qualification would enrich me more although I had practical teaching experience behind me at this time. This is what drove me to earn my degree even as a mature student.”  Shigeko’s zest for learning later took her to the University of Pennsylvania where she read for her Master’s in Education Leadership.

Shigeko established Surangani Voluntary Services (SVS) here in 1992, named after the pre-school she established after her volunteer days in Peliyagoda. Rendering a silent service, SVS has evolved into an organization committed to improving the quality of preschool teaching and nurturing better learning environments for children. Today SVS works with nearly 400 pre-schools in several districts including Colombo, Ratnapura, Ampara, Mannar, Moneragala, Galle, Batticaloa and Trincomalee, touching the lives of around 6000 children. SVS also works closely with community resource persons and Grama Niladhari officers who facilitate networking at community level.

For Shigeko, the best part of SVS is the people she works with. Taking immense pride in her committed staff, Shigeko adds, “all of us take pride in what we do.”

Along with ‘SMILES’ and ‘Alipencha’, SVS also runs ‘The Little Tree’ and Preschool Teacher’s Diploma Course. The Pre-School Teacher’s Diploma Course assisted by JAICA and accredited by the Children’s Secretariat, is designed to equip teachers to deliver quality pre-school education and activities.

The positive and progressive thinker she is, Shigeko or Baba-San (San is a Japanese term of respect) as she is referred to with love and respect by her students and staff, believes that every child has a part to play in society. “The Sri Lankan education sector is still evolving in terms of catering to children with special needs and this becomes even more challenging in the rural set up,” observes Shigeko who initiated ‘The Little Tree Special Needs Children’s Centre’ in Buttala in 2011 with assistance from Japan Postal Savings For International Voluntary Aid and the Japanese Embassy in Sri Lanka. Many children with special needs who used to languish at home with no basic education, have been nurtured into happy children under the shade of The Little Tree.

The visionary educationist’s commitment for Lankan children does not end there. Concerned over the employment prospects of children with special needs, Shigeko turned the tables once more initiating the Little Tree Peanut project, (affiliated to The Little Tree Special Needs Children’s Centre’) in Buttala, capitalizing on the area’s staple crop- rata kajuor peanuts.  The factory which produces packeted roasted peanuts is a stable source of income for the parents of children with special needs. It also provides employment for young adults with special needs. As Shigeko points out, the product which is popular in Buttala and the volunteer network of SVS is also sold at the Good Market at Race Course Grounds in Colombo. To meet the growing demand for the product, they hope to enhance their manufacturing volume and expand the distribution network.

Shigeko Baba: From Japan with love. Pix by Indika Handuwala

W. NalinVipulendra, National Representative, SVS says that 25 fruitful years with SVS had made him a “matured personality with a whole new perspective on life.” “Baba-San has inspired us to lead and help others grow,” says Nalin who goes on to note that instead of running their own pre-schools, SVS believes in reaching out to any preschool in need of mentoring.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, one of Shigeko’s earliest students at Yoshida Pre-school in Sapugaskanda, W.D.L. Saubhagya, presently the Assistant Director, Children’s Secretariat remarked that the best lesson Baba-San has cultivated in her is self-confidence. “She helped us overcome stage fear and I still remember vividly how she used activity-based tools to develop personality in us,” says Saubhagya who is mother of a young child herself and a professional committed to child welfare in the country. “She set the example by doing things herself. The empathy she displayed as a warm and a caring teacher is exceptional.”

Endorsing Saubhagya, are the volunteers who come to the SVS office in Nawala and keep themselves productively engaged making an assortment of items including teaching material and greeting cards. Mayumi, Kazuke and Ms. Nemoto were among them who consider themselves to be bridges between Japan and Sri Lanka. Either career commitments or marriage had brought them all here and now they find Sri Lanka their second home. “I find volunteering at SVS a rewarding experience, to be part of the selfless work Baba San is doing for Lankan children,” says Mayumi Isafahani, a Japanese-English translator who comes from Wellawatte regularly to be part of SVS’s work. “Baba San’s commitment is a fine reflection of healthy relations between the two countries and this exercise is purely a labour of love,” Mayumi’s words seemed to aptly encapsulate the inventive educationist’s vision for the underprivileged  children of this land.



Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.