Stringing together a lifeline of colourful beads

From post tsunami workshops on jewellery-making, to the establishment of an NGO, Emerge Global, this is the story of a young MIT graduate’s endeavour to help young girls in two homes in Panadura and Moratuwa change their lives
By Lanelle Hills Perera, Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Alia Whitney-Johnson communicates in a language so full of colour, it glistens. Turning a cluster of necklaces in her hand she touches the beads that have changed the lives of those who are now learning its language too.

“I don’t speak Sinhala,” she says. “But I didn’t have to speak Sinhala to show them how to bead. Beading was a way for me to get to know them, it was a language we could share,” says the 23-year-old as she speaks excitedly about Emerge Global and her girls.

Emerge Global is an international charity founded by Ms. Johnson during her time as a tsunami volunteer. Currently the organisation which is headquartered in Boston runs a beading programme in two homes in Panadura and Moratuwa which shelter young girls between the ages of 10-18 who are survivors of abuse.

The programme centres on hand crafting pieces of fashionable jewellery which are sold in the USA and Britain. The profits from the jewellery are collected in each girl’s bank account to be accessed when she turns 18 and is ready to leave the home and embark on a new life. The remaining funds are channelled into the programme which has two main aims; Supporting the girls to rebuild their lives economically and equipping them with the skills they will need to survive when they leave the home.

“We don’t want all of them to be jewellery designers; we want them to achieve their own goals and dreams. So we want this to be a tool for them to move out on their own,” says Alia stressing the importance of the relationships they have built with the girls.

To this end, Nirukshi de Lanerolle, Coordinator for the Bead programme among her many tasks, takes on the role of mother to the girls at both homes. She is their confidante, listening to their fears and doubts whilst encouraging them along the way. Being the first local staff member she recalls the days when it was just her and Alia communicating back and forth trying to set up the programme.

“At the beginning, I worked out of my room in the US and Nirukshi worked out of her house,” Alia laughs adding that Nirukshi’s car and house were their working space. “She had beads stacked up to the ceiling with all these boxes and everything was done via email and skype.”

After some long hours of hard work, Emerge Global was registered as a non profit organization in the US in 2008 and a year ago the Emerge Lanka Foundation was registered here as a charitable company.

What started out as a jewellery workshop has now expanded into learning life skills, community development and lessons on leadership. Systems are now in place and the Emerge Global team in Sri Lanka comprising Bryanne Gilkinson (Country Director), Nirukshi de Lanerolle (Programme Coordinator), and Iroshini Kalpage (Programme Development Officer) operate from a flat in Wellawatte while fund raising and operations in the US are done by Alia.

The story of Emerge Global begins with a young Ms. Johnson who at the age of seven years took to jewellery making as a hobby. She admits the peak of her jewellery career came when she was just 12 years old making pieces for a few hundred dollars. Having apprenticed with a jeweller in her own home town in North Carolina she was commissioned to make pieces of jewellery.

Emerge Lanka team: (L-R) Bryanne Gilkinson (Country Director), Alia Whitney-Johnson (Founder and Executive Director of Emerge Global), Nirukshi de Lanerolle (Programme Coordinator), and Iroshini Kalpage (Programme Development Officer)

“It was my own small business,” she smiles. “At seven it was a great way for me to get to know the world in terms of business, customers and math and all these different things. But by High School I slowed down and ended up applying to MIT to become an engineer.”

The young MIT undergraduate never thought she would return to beading till an advertisement calling for volunteers to work in Sri Lanka after the tsunami appealed to her. Not having a summer job to keep her busy, she decided to venture to Sri Lanka with two friends from College.

Alia worked in Batticaloa rebuilding villages with communities, but what changed her life was when she volunteered at a shelter in Moratuwa. “I have never been so over whelmed in my entire life,” she says recalling the first day she walked into the home. Her purpose? To write a letter seeking funds for the home.

“I had been working in tsunami camps in Batti but in those camps everyone was helping to rebuild schools, they were starting to build new businesses and even though they had lost everything, there was a real sense of community. However, when I walked into the home in Moratuwa there was really nothing for these girls. They were not talking to each other, they couldn’t go to school, they couldn’t ever go back to their families.”

And just then it hit her. This is where she would use her beads. “These girls had been separated from everything in their whole lives and me just taking notes would separate them again,” she thought. “I didn’t want to be one more sense of separation for these girls.”

So instead of writing a letter she did what she knew best: she introduced them to a hobby that was close to her heart. The first workshop that was held at the shelter in Moratuwa was completely chaotic she says remembering how the girls would keep asking her permission to use the beads.
“The purpose of the workshop was to help them define their own sense of beauty, because they had not been valued or told that their ideas were worth anything,” says Alia.

Once that was communicated and the girls understood, the workshop was about them creating what they thought was beautiful. By the end of the day they were creating their own designs and eagerly flipping through a bead book and coming up with their own creations says Alia who was preparing to return to the US.

However, the counsellor who had been working with the girls for three years noticed their enthusiasm for the beading workshop, and had wanted Alia to return.

“That’s when we developed the programme with the counsellor. I got a grant and came back in 2007. I got some time off from College for a few months,” she says referring to the initial months of putting the programme into place.

During that time she used the funds to set up bank accounts for the girls and obtained an export licence. At the same time she worked with the girls at the shelter in Moratuwa to refine their techniques in beading so that the jewellery would be marketable.

Shehani * a staffer at Emerge Global was once a participant of the programme at the shelter in Moratuwa. Having completed it she now helps the girls at the home in Panadura.

“More than the money, it’s the people at Emerge Global that I value the most,” she says. “Many times I have sought advice from them and Nirukshi miss has always been like a mother to us,” she says.

Shehani* has much to offer these girls in terms of her own personal experiences and says helping the girls has been very rewarding. “Since I’ve been through what they have it’s easier for me to relate to them. And working with young people and children is what I enjoy the most.”

The beading programme is based on two curricula- beads to business and life skills. The girls are guided through the curriculum by way of a workbook and on completing different stages they are rewarded with little prizes.

A unique aspect of the programme is the virtual Emerge shop and Bank. The beading programme begins each week with the setting up of the shop and bank where girls play the role of shopkeeper and banker. Through this role play exercise the girls get a feel for banking and accounting.

The life skills curriculum is a segment where lessons and games are incorporated to teach the girls various life skills. Money management, finding a job, writing a resume are just some of the subjects the curriculum covers. But more importantly their opinions are sought on ways they would like to change their communities.

From every product the girls produce, 25 cents is set aside for a community fund. Here, the girls plan their own community project and recently they voted to cook a meal for a nearby elders’ home and with the balance money they purchased a DVD player for the shelter.

Alia has big hopes for her girls- mainly that people will see them as capable strong individuals. She says “We’ve gone way beyond looking at them as victims which is very passive. We see them as survivors who got through something that was really hard. They have big dreams,” she says proudly.

“What happens if we give these young girls who have demonstrated so much resilience the skills to not only support themselves but to also change their communities,” she says animatedly “think about what Sri Lanka would be like ?” she says. “Just think about that.”

To learn more about Emerge Global log onto their website at

* Names have been changed

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