Unqualified Teachers in Hill Country
Melissa’s long and winding road to this point spans not only two continents but two very different cultures as well as involving a little time travel, as she journeyed back to her infancy. Born in Sri Lanka, her birth mother had no choice other than to allow her to be adopted at just eight weeks old.
Life in the UK meant that she was given the gift of a first rate education so that she could head off into the world full of hope. She had no idea then, how very different her life would have been, if her birth mother had not been brave enough to let her go.
After an incredible series of coincidences, a friend visiting Sri Lanka in 2009 found her mother. She was working on a tea plantation and living in poverty with Melissa’s two brothers – who she never even knew she had! Amazingly, Melissa had just one photograph of her mother cuddling her as a baby. Melissa’s mother, also had a copy of this same photograph so the connection was made. For 25 years, they had both treasured this same image, both wondering about each other and now it had brought them together.
As soon as Melissa could, she travelled to Sri Lanka. I’m sure you can imagine how emotional the reunion was and even with the language barrier, there was no doubting the love felt for each other – Melissa, her mother and brothers.
Melissa’s happiness during that trip was tempered however with the realisation that for her family, living and working on a tea plantation, was a very hard life. Money was scarce, the work was backbreaking and living conditions awful. More shockingly, she discovered how dreadful the education system was for the children of Tamil tea plantation workers and how this contrasted with her own experiences. Worse still, was the revelation that there is a very high suicide rate among these children.
She is now involved with a project located in Maskeliya and Nuwara Eliya, called Tea Leaf Vision run via charity Tea Leaf Trust and also helps to raise awareness of the plight of the Tamil tea plantation workers.
Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is home to Sri Lanka’s tea industry. Tea is grown and picked by hand on an industrial scale. It’s a major export for Sri Lanka and accounts for around 15% of GDP, generating roughly seven hundred million US dollars annually but the people that grow and pick the tea are the poorest and most underprivileged class in Sri Lankan society. Crushing poverty and limited access to good, quality education, ensures there is always another generation of undereducated youth who will be forced to fulfil the tea estates needs for cheap manual labourers.
Tea Leaf Vision is trying hard to change this. They believe the only way to help the next generation to have a choice to escape the low wages and back breaking work is through education and personal development. Tea Leaf Vision runs an 11 month intensive English Diploma Programme for students aged between 18 – 24 years old. This free programme teaches English grammar and speech (English being the business language of Sri Lanka), I.T., business studies and personal development. The Diploma is designed to help young adults who’ve had to leave education due to poverty or who have been let down by an under resourced state school system. For many of the schools in the tea plantation area, teaching standards tend to be very poor as a result of the employment of unqualified staff. This leads to many school leavers not achieving the academic results required to find meaningful employment or continue higher level studies.
Tea Leaf Vision’s ethos of giving back to the tea plantation community is to train students to give a basic English programme to 7 – 12 year olds once a week at remote primary schools serving tea estates. The students go out to teach during terms 2 and 3. The course has been designed to instil in students the importance of community service and to boost their confidence whilst simultaneously providing free English lessons to hundreds of children who would not otherwise have access to English classes.
The Founder, Tim Pare says, “Through the course it’s amazing because they go from being nothing within their communities to being change agents, being role models to the young men and women in their communities, saying: yes, this time last year, I couldn’t speak English either and now I’m teaching you”.
From 2015 to 2017, Melissa campaigned to buy a 52 seat second hand school bus for Tea Leaf Vision so that students had a safe and affordable means to attend their classes. Thanks to a Rotary International grant, the target figure was bumped up to 58K, helping to provide so much more…
✓ Brand new mobile library
✓ Maintenance of the bus (1 year)
✓ Training for and salary of the bus driver (1 year)
✓ Salary for 3 members of teaching staff (1 year)
It is a safe and affordable means for students to attend their classes but also a little mobile sanctuary for education for the wider community on the tea plantations.
After Melissa’s fundraising and awareness raising campaign, she was asked to be Tea Leaf Vision’s UK Ambassador.