On their return from a three-week tour of Sri Lanka, three Santa Monica students said that the “experience was overwhelming.”
While there, the trio participated in community service oriented projects in the areas of the country that were devestasted by last December’s extraordinary tsunami.
Laurent Sander Grill, 16, a junior at Crossroads School, Mariza B. Lockhart, 15, a sophomore at Santa Monica High School and Gether Gibson, 17, a Santa Monica High School senior, are youth volunteers at the Santa Monica chapter of the American Red Cross, and went to Sri Lanka with seven other Southern California high school students who were sponsored by Relief International – Schools Online (RI-SOL) with the assistance of the American Red Cross of Santa Monica.
Accompanying the ten teenagerts were three chaperones from the United States. They were joined by additional chaperones in Sri Lanka.
The group landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka and immediately set out on what was clearly a memorable journey.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Gibson. The youth group spent two weeks doing humanitarian and relief work in the coastal areas devastated by the December 26, 2004 tsunami that claimed over two hundred thousand lives.
“We spent four days working around the Buddhist community center in Madihe, a village in the Matara district in southern Sri Lanka where we repaired and painted walls, helped repair a latrine and planted a medicinal garden,” said Grill.
Struck by the friendliness of the Sri Lankans, Grill related, “When we arrived at the location, there was a group of college students there from the Center for Peace Building and Reconciliation. They welcomed us. They were really open. Despite the language differences and three translators, everyone worked together and we got the job done. Everyone was excited that we were there to help.”
“We worked side by side with the Sri Lankans and it was amazing how nice they were,”’ added Gibson. ” They gladly took us into their homes without reservation. Even though they had very little left, they were extremely generous.”
“We did a lot of work,” said Gibson, who was stunned by the devastation. “My only regret was that we couldn’t do more.”
“We supplied chalk and a chalkboard for a preschool in Matara. We also sanded and painted children’s classroom furniture,” Gibson added, “all in the high coastal heat and oppressive humidity.”
“The impact of such a tragedy didn’t really hit home until we talked to a teacher and found out that seven of her ten kindergarten-aged children were swept away,” Gibson said.
For Gibson and the others, one of the most emotional moments was the group’s visit to Galle, the place where a train was swept off it’s tracks in southern Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. The catastrophe claimed 1500 lives.
“It was shocking and depressing,” Gibson reflected. “Many families and people gathered around us while we were there. Some asked for money and others asked for help. We wanted to help but we were only there for a few minutes. It was still an overwhelming moment.”
Members of the group were surprised at the level of destruction the tsunami caused. “We talked to people who lost their entire families,” said Grill. There were lots of orphans even though a high percentage of the deaths were children. People were living in tents in the heat and in terrible conditions. They needed lots of help but we just couldn’t do all we wanted to.”
Grill estimated that only 40 percent of the damage had been repaired.
The group spent one of its three weeks in Sri Lanka sightseeing in the capital city of Colombo, including visits to the National Museum and Buddhist Temple of the Tooth.
Later during the tour, the grouped backpacked into the chilly central highlands of Sri Lanka. In Kandy, Sri Lanka, it took part in a cultural exchange that included singing and dancing with the locals.
Everyone on the trip fared well with the exception of chaperone and Santa Monica Red Cross director of volunteers and youth services, Jerry Washington.
Washington was bitten multiple times by a spiders on an outing and had to be hospitalized briefly. He has since recovered, but his leg sports a nasty black and blue souvenir blemish.
If the trip had a low point, it was the 25 hours the teenagers spent on cramped airplanes.
The youth exchange, Global Citizenship — Youth Exploration and Empowerment, was designed to give young leaders the opportunity to view cultures, youth leadership, and community development from a global perspective.
In this instance, it offered participants the opportunity to develop and maintain personal linkages with Sri Lankan youth while familiarizing themselves with an entirely different culture.
All participants were selected by Relief International – Schools Online which is a Los Angeles based non-governmental organization with 15 years experience in providing emergency rehabilitation and developmental services addressing long-term developmental needs. RI-SOL is involved in delivering education and communication technologies to classrooms around the world and has been conducting academic and cultural exchanges since 2000.
“Having donated over $1.3 million to the victims of the tsunami and relief efforts in southern Asia, Santa Monica residents should be proud of the important role they’ve played in helping the victims of this devastating tragedy rebuild their lives,” said Santa Monica chapter executive director John Pacheco. “Our community’s caring included more than just providing funding. We also sent three of our youth volunteers and a staff member as a chaperone to help with ongoing humanitarian relief activities in Sri Lanka.”
All costs for the trip including pre-departure orientation, travel expenses and airfares for both students and adult chaperones are covered by a private financial grant through Relief International – Schools Online.Caitlin Drewes, Program Officer for RI-SOL and Rachel Antrobus, a youth advocate based in Orange County accompanied the youth as chaperones along with Washington. Two other adults joined them in Sri Lanka. The group departed from Los Angeles, July 1st and returned Friday, July 22nd.