Anisha Niyas, a volunteer for STITCH recounts her journey to Valaichchenai to distribute 358 pairs of shoes and socks to impoverished children.
One thing for certain, Batticaloa was hot – it was hard to ignore the dry heat and the rush of dust that whirled in the distance. My two volunteer colleagues – Janitha, Prathibha and I settled into the back of the lorry we were using to transport 358 pairs of shoes and socks to kids in Valaichchenai. I thought about the journey to get here. This was the first volunteer project that I had taken complete ownership of – from the fundraising to getting all of the last minute logistics sorted out with our kind sponsors DSI, Nations Trust Bank as well as our families and friends that supported us. The wonderful team at STITCH hit the ground running. So here we were, travelling to two schools in Valaichchenai to meet the kids who were excitedly waiting for us.
The birth of this project, which I coined the term Sole 4 Sole, was based on need. We had delivered relief aid during the time theEasternProvincehad been hit by heavy flooding early this year. The District Secretariat of the Koralaipattu Division told us of the plight of the children in some of the worst affected schools, thanking us for the Back to School packs that we had delivered and told us that they walked to school barefoot. Would we be able to help? It was a plight that we could not ignore. Socks and shoes are something all of us took for granted when we were kids. It was that basic of a need – my parents would have never imagined sending me to school barefoot. So if I had that luxury, why not help other children who have never owned a proper pair of shoes?
The kids were incredibly patient as we unloaded the boxes and sorted out the shoes according to size and gender. Standing in line as we handed over the boxes, each one of them personally thanked us and ran to a corner to try on their new shoes. It was a sight that left each of us volunteers more than a little emotional. We had leftColomboat 7pm, travelling by train, reaching Batticaloa at 5am and then having to travel to a littlePreSchoolto rest for a few hours. I remember being so tired that I fell asleep using my backpack as a pillow. It was a tough journey but all of that travelling and having to rough it out was worth it in the end.
Walking into the second Primary school, which educated 60 children under the age of ten, was personally the highlight of the entire trip for me. The kids were from very impoverished backgrounds but they had that happiness of making a new friend, of crawling onto my lap to look at the photos I was taking and showing off the dances that they had learned. A few of the bolder one’s asked me “Akki, can you take a photo of my friend too?” and before I knew it, they were all shyly clamouring to look at their images and giggling at the outcome. I honestly don’t know if they ever had their photo taken but our Canon brought a lot of joy that day.
It can be really hard to get your head around issues related to poverty. Apart from distribution of the shoes, our other aim through the Sole 4 Sole campaign was to give people insight into the lack of choice and the daily challenges these kids face in the pursuit of education. If there was a stand out, it was these kids dedication to aspire to become doctors, lawyers and teachers, and in turn serve their community, despite the hardships they face. Most of these kids survive on two meals a day, some even less, they walk to school barefoot, their childhood has been tinged with surviving conflict – yet they come to school every day, with the hunger to learn. That is something we should support in whatever way that we can. One thing for fact, there are 358 incredibly happy children in Valaichchenai today. For each of us volunteers, the biggest lesson that we learned was that this was not the end of the journey, it is only the beginning.