When Luis and I first set foot on the compound of the Wijewardane Children’s Home in Panadura, Sri Lanka, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the house and the property. The gravel driveway was lined with lush green bushes and red and yellow flowers, leading to an equally impressive covered front porch, which had a railing that was lined with wicker chairs.
As we entered the house, I noticed that the inside was just as grand as the outside – the ceiling was high and curved, and the floors were covered in black and white tile. Decorative archways lead into large rooms on both sides and in front of us. I felt as though I had stepped back in time to what homes in the country must have been like many years ago, before the civil war, back when the British still ruled and the country was called by its former name, Ceylon. Come to find out, I wasn’t wrong in my thoughts.
The Wijewardane Children’s Home belongs to the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, an organization that works to promote charitable efforts in Sri Lanka. As we toured the home with our Volunteer Coordinator, Mrs. Nilamani Peiris, she explained that it was built more than 100 years ago and had belonged to a family who decided to leave the estate to the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress in 1965 so it could be used as a home for local children who were abandoned or orphaned. It has had the same mission to help young girls in need ever since then.
It now made sense to me why the home had many intricate details in its design - it had not originally been intended to be used as a group home, but as a private residence for a wealthy family. Although older and in need of some fresh paint and small repairs, the home was in good shape for its age; and although I was impressed by the architecture, I was even more impressed with the idea that this special family had so long ago chosen to donate their home to help children in need so they could have better opportunities in life.
An excursion for everyone
Earlier that morning, we drove from Colombo along the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka to Panadura. On the way to the home from our hotel, Mrs. Peiris, who first came to the Wijewardane Children’s Home as a manager 22 years ago, told us she had recently taken all the girls on a trip to the capital. Together they visited an art museum and a temple, and had dessert at a hotel. The trip had been possible because three of our sponsored children had received gifts from their sponsors to be used specifically for an excursion.
Mrs. Peiris didn’t want any of the girls to feel left out, so she used money from the home to take all of them with her, and she was excited about how much they enjoyed their time away from the home. Other than to go to school or occasional doctors’ appointments, the girls don’t leave the home often. Although some do have families to return to during holiday breaks from school, many don’t have other homes to go to, which means they rarely leave the compound.
When we arrived at the home about 45 minutes later, the girls were in their rooms preparing a traditional dance for us, which was their way to welcome me and Luis, and show us thanks for the support they receive from their sponsors. It was fun to not only get to see the girls perform the dances that they had worked hard to perfect, but we even had time afterward to take pictures together. The girls were very energetic and sweet, and even though they didn’t speak much English, they communicated their feelings of joy by posing playfully and giggling, dressed in their nicest outfits, which they had worn to honor their guests.
Making ends meet with very little support
When we met with Mrs. Peiris after taking pictures with the girls, she mentioned that the government only provides the home with about 600 rupees a month – about four U.S. dollars - for each of the eighteen girls that live there, which does very little to help them. The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress doesn’t provide much support beyond the use of the home, so Mrs. Peiris has to work hard to make ends meet. Sponsorship support from Children Incorporated really helps her to buy hygiene items like toothpaste and soap, and buy food, clothes, and school supplies for the girls.
Despite the difficulties of running the home with few resources, Mrs. Peiris is grateful that she can provide a safe place for the girls to live while they attend local schools, and where they can enjoy activities after school such as dance, patchwork, and sewing classes. The girls also learn weaving, dressmaking, and carpet making. She knows that at least while the girls are growing up, she can make sure they have everything they need, even though once they turn eighteen, they can no longer live at the home or receive government support. At that point, they either have to find employment or move back in with their families, which is not an option for some of them.
When we left the home, I did have concerns myself for these girls’ futures after they finish school, knowing they will have to work hard to make it on their own. But I also felt hopeful for them, because Sri Lanka is a country where although there are many poor people, there is opportunity, whether you have money or not, unlike many other places in the world. Although higher education is competitive, college is free in the country, and there are jobs both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere – many times in the United Kingdom or Australia - for these children once they grow up. And thanks to the loving care of Mrs. Peiris and the gift from a generous family of the Wijewardane Children’s Home, I feel that these girls are getting the chance they need to succeed in life.