One for the Books

(Margaret Pressler)
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sarasi Jayaratne, 17, vividly remembers waking up during the December holidays in 2004 at her cousin's house. Her large family was in a panic, and the adults were frantically making phone calls.

Sarasi was born in the Washington area and grew up in Sterling. Her parents, though, are from Sri Lanka, a small island country in the Indian Ocean.

The commotion that morning was about the giant wave, or tsunami, that had swept across Sri Lanka's coastline without warning, killing thousands of people. The terrible news was all over television.

Sarasi's relatives in Sri Lanka (pronounced sree LONG-kuh)were not injured, but many survivors were not so fortunate. A year later, Sarasi found a way to help some of them -- by collecting books for children at rural schools hit hard by the disaster.

She had heard through the Sri Lankan community here that many schools were struggling to teach kids English because they had no books in English. Sinhala is one of the official languages of Sri Lanka, but children there start learning English as a second language around age 4 or 5.

"English is one of the things that they really need to learn," Sarasi said. So she asked a local Sri Lankan group if it would be helpful to send gently used children's books along with the clothes her family was frequently sending.

Yes, she was told.

Sarasi started contacting churches, schools and libraries -- plus a lot of neighborhood parents. In all, she collected 2,000 books, from kindergarten reading level through high school, and shipped them by sea to Sri Lanka.

"I just felt like someone should at least initiate it and let other Sri Lankans know that there is something they can do," Sarasi said.

This month she and her mother traveled to Sri Lanka to give the books to schools. Sarasi taught English for a few days in several of the poorest schools, some of which were huts with grass roofs.

Many of the children had lost their parents in the tsunami (pronounced soo-NAH-me), "but they all have a smile on their face," she said. "That always made me feel teary."

Everything about the trip was more than expected by Sarasi or her mother, who has lived in the United States for 22 years. For one thing, the "small ceremony" she was expecting at the first school turned out to be a gathering of 2,000 students, a marching band, military generals and other leaders. Sarasi had to give a speech.

"I wasn't terrified, I was just like, 'Wow,' " she said. Sarasi, who is going into her senior year at Potomac Falls High School in Loudoun County, couldn't believe how important her efforts turned out to be.

Inspired by the trip, she is setting up a charity, the Keep Reading Foundation, and collecting books for her next shipment to poor children in Sri Lanka.

"I want them to have a chance to get the best of what life has to offer," she said.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

© 2007 The Washington Post Company