By Ron Wolfe, ChildFund IT Project Portfolio Manager
In December 2004, as the Indian Ocean tsunami raced outward from the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake’s epicenter, the sea devastated the Sri Lankan coastline from the eastern city of Trincomalee to the western capital of Colombo. In the middle of this target stood Hambantota, a picturesque town on the island’s southern coast, which sustained devastation of a scale that is hard to comprehend.
Today, the visible scars of the disaster are primarily gone. The city has rebuilt, while much of the development has been relocated further inland. The children play, and civic life continues as it has for centuries. The tsunami, though, remains a part of the people’s identity.
A team from ChildFund headquarters was recently in Sri Lanka to deploy a new online tool called the Letter Translation Exchange (LTE). Its purpose is to facilitate the digitization of child and sponsor correspondence and reduce the time it takes to translate the letters. As part of the deployment process, we travelled from Colombo, the location of the ChildFund Sri Lanka National Office, to Hambantota to meet the staff in this district and the children we all serve.
After visiting the Hambantota Area Office, the team arrived at one of 12 zonal offices of the Ruhulu Wellassa Area Federation, ChildFund’s local partner organization in this area, tucked beneath a thick grove of cashew trees. Each Zonal Office in this district is led by a community mobilizer who manages 200 to 400 children participating in our programs.
On the day of our visit, a number of children were there playing with friends and family and writing letters to their sponsors, some of them writing in English instead of their native Sinhala. ChildFund is offering language skills programs through the local partner. “English is an important skill that the children are eager to gain,” said Dilrukshi Ruwanpura, ChildFund Sri Lanka’s sponsor relations manager. It was impressive to see the children combining some of the benefits they receive from sponsorship and one of the essential components of sponsorship itself: one-to-one communication.
The LTE is ChildFund’s first step in modernizing that communication between sponsor and child. National Office staff will scan letters to create PDFs, which will be uploaded into an online document system. Translators can then access the system at any time and from anywhere via the Internet to translate the letters. Once translated, each letter will be printed out and mailed to the addressee. ChildFund currently manages approximately 1.5 million pieces of correspondence annually.
The technology is meant to enable the staff to do their jobs more efficiently while reducing the time it takes for correspondence to travel back and forth. “As we become more familiar with the LTE, our workload and the workload of the local partner will decrease,” said Dilrukshi. This in turn should allow even more time for the staff within each ChildFund area to focus on programs for the children.
Future ChildFund technology projects will eventually carry this further by facilitating sponsor access to the digital correspondence and providing a way to respond electronically. First, though, the LTE will continue to be deployed to additional countries. The team went next to Honduras and will soon be in Ecuador to scale up the LTE even further.
As we spent the afternoon with the children in Hambantota, they continued to impress us. One group of youth worked together to create a regularly published newsletter called Dawn, writing articles, taking photographs and editing and laying out the content. Others are involved in job skills training, such as hotel management, construction or information technology. One young woman proudly displayed images of the art she had created for a solo exhibition in her community, with art supplies provided by ChildFund. All showed the promise of becoming fully engaged in the continuing effort to lift up their country and make a difference.