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Sarasi Jayaratne

Inspired by a tragedy, Sarasi saw an opportunity to help kids less fortunate than herself by providing them with books. She started the Keep Reading Foundation and now sends thousands of books each year to Sri Lanka, a country destroyed by a tsunami (SOO-nah-mee). Check out her interview to see how she started and where she’s headed.

How old are you?

I am 19 years old.

Where are you from and where are you living?

I was born and raised mostly all of my life in Northern Virginia, but my family is from Sri Lanka.

How did you get the idea to start the Keep Reading Foundation?

On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake on the ocean floor near Sumatra, Indonesia produced the most deadly tsunami in the world's history. The tsunami killed hundreds of people and destroyed towns and land. There were 168 schools destroyed or damaged in Sri Lanka, an island just 20 miles off the southern tip of India.

I felt very sad about the poor children who lost so much. At that time, I was designing a service project for my Junior Girl Scout troop. Having seen the devastation, I knew that I should do something to help the children in those countries. Being a native Sri Lankan, my instant reaction and decision was to help children in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was shattered by civil war that had, until recently, been going on for decades. The people in Sri Lanka speak different languages, which creates a lot of conflict. I believe if English was introduced at a young age, it would link language between the people and bring them together. But, school systems have not always addressed the demand of English as a second language to poor children, who often need it the most. That is why I formed the Keep Reading Foundation.

How do you get the books to Sri Lanka?

First, I try to get the community’s attention. To do this, I meet with local school principals, church and community leaders to make presentations with eye-catching videos. My presentations reveal the living conditions of the children and the problems they face. Also, I explain to people how they can play a key role in my mission to help those poor children.

The other part of the effort is to get the media’s attention. You can see all the coverage we’ve received on our Web site, External link.

All of that work helps me collect books. I collect books from local libraries, friends, families, churches, and schools in Virginia. With the media’s attention, I receive books from publishers, libraries, churches, organizations and individual households around the U.S. As of now, Keep Reading Foundation has collected and shipped more than 15,000 books to Sri Lanka.

All of the books that I send over to Sri Lanka are children’s books for grades kindergarten through sixth grade. The books mostly go to elementary schools in rural villages and tsunami-affected areas in Sri Lanka.

All the books are organized by grade and reading level and put into boxes. Then all the boxes are shipped all the way to Sri Lanka by boat.

Tell us about the 100 Mini-Libraries project.

The "100 Mini Libraries" program for 2009 donates 10 to 300 books to each of 100 selected rural Sri Lankan schools that have few libraries. The local school principles and officials of the Department of Education assist us in selecting the needy schools. The selected schools will have students from different ethnic groups so that they can connect with each other using English as a common language and stay in peace and harmony. Also, we will organize special holiday reading programs for both children and adults as a part of the program with help of volunteers. Currently, more than 100 volunteers are helping us to reach our goals.

What do you hope will happen with Keep Reading Foundation in the next ten years?

In the next ten years, Keep Reading Foundation plans to establish Rural Community Libraries in rural Sri Lanka in addition to donating books to school libraries.

We hope to build Rural Community Libraries in areas where disadvantaged families live. The libraries will serve approximately 2,000 to 5,000 people and will be built for about $5,000 per library. Keep Reading Foundation will donate 1,000 books to each library at the beginning and arrange to have supporting voluntary staff.

We will train selected high school children as volunteer librarians. They will be trained by a team of English-speaking volunteers in basic skills such as how to inventory, repair, and catalog books.

We will organize and fund reading workshops and establish summer reading programs in the libraries for both children and adults.

We will sponsor English reading and drama contests in schools that receive library books through Keep Reading Foundation. Special prizes will be awarded to contest winners. The winners will be recognized in public to encourage more children to join the programs/contests and demonstrate the impact the library has had in their lives.

What are you studying in college and how was your freshman year?

I am majoring in biology at Cornell University. But freshman year really opened my eyes to so many opportunities. At Cornell, there is such a diverse community. I am friends with people from not only all over America, but also all over the world. It is a once in a lifetime experience. Also, the food is pretty good compared to the horror stories my friends have from other colleges. Also, the class sizes are really big. So it was and still is a big challenge for me to adjust from a small 20-student class back in high school to having more than 300 students in a vast auditorium.

Do you have long-term career goals?

Well, in the long run, I’m planning to go to medical school and become a pediatrician. I love kids and science. What better way to combine both passions into one career? But there are so many other fields for biology majors.

What are your hobbies?

Obviously I love reading books, fiction especially. Also, I like photography. So I always keep a camera with me. I love to make scrapbooks with photographs I have taken. Last but not least, I love to play soccer. I’ve played soccer ever since I was in first grade and I try to find time whenever I can to play.

Content last reviewed July 01, 2009
Page last updated July 01, 2009

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.