The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004, caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the island country’s coast, was one of the most devastating disasters ever recorded in the country’s history. The tsunami left tens of thousands dead, and many more, homeless, as well as had widespread effects on the country’s environment and ecosystems. The eastern shore of Sri Lanka faced the hardest impact because it was facing the epicenter of earthquake.
The coastal town of Galle, just two hours south of Colombo, a hotspot for tourists that has a bustling fishing industry, was hit incredibly hard. The tsunami swiftly destroyed an estimated 7,000 houses, most of which were made of wood, leaving many families without homes. The Dadella Children’s Center, located in the center of Galle and only a few hundred feet from the ocean, was submerged in eight feet of water. It took nearly a year for the city to recover after such a large disaster. Many children were orphaned, as more than 6,000 people lost their lives as a result of the tsunami.
Helping rebuild after disaster strikes
In the aftermath of the tsunami, Children Incorporated, along with the Dadella Children’s Center, which is run by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Sri Lanka, provided considerable relief and aid through the reconstruction of homes, while also supplying food, clothing, and mattresses to families who lost everything.
The YMCA initiated the process of constructing 25 homes for families whose children attended the Dadella Center, and who had been left homeless after the tsunami. But when they asked the government to provide the land, the government came back with one provision: they would provide the land to build on, but they wanted the YMCA to build fifty homes instead of 25 – but the government was not going to provide additional monetary support.
The YMCA didn’t have enough money to complete all fifty homes; but thankfully, Children Incorporated was able to step in and provide the funds needed to purchase doors and windows, and to finish roofs in order to complete the homes - and twice as many families as originally anticipated were, in fact, given homes. That was over twelve years ago now. Luis Bourdet, our Director of International Programs, however, still clearly remembers visiting Galle and the Dadella Children’s Center when the houses were being built. He recalls going to our sponsored children’s destroyed homes after the tsunami, and seeing that their families were left with no belongings, having to start their lives over with nothing. At least, he thought, they’d have homes to go to.
On our visit to the Dadella Center in August, Luis was pleased to see the same children he had visited with before – but this time, as young teens and adults. Luis greeted a young man whose house had not been entirely lost, but was in dire need of repair after the tsunami. He is grown now, and working as a teacher in a local public school that some of our sponsored children attend.
We met another boy that Luis remembers well, now older and out of our sponsorship program, who lost his father in the tsunami, and spent his childhood in fear because he lived close to water. Children Incorporated helped build a house for him and his mother, and he is now a high school graduate, is currently taking his advanced-level exams, and hopes to go on to college one day.
There were many success stories from the Dadella Children’s Center, and I could tell from Luis’ smile that he was really proud of all the children he was able to visit with again. We were pleased to hear that many of our former sponsored children are working with the center once a week as leaders to the 23 sponsored children currently in our program. They have overcome difficult obstacles in their lives, and it was incredible to meet them and see how well they are doing, despite many setbacks and challenges in life.
While visiting the center, we were shown around by the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the YMCA, a kind Sri Lankan man named Angus, who has held this position since 1986. He explained that he found out about Children Incorporated many years ago, because his cousin is Dr. Rodrigo, our Volunteer Coordinator at the Chrishanti Lama Sevana Center in Colombo. I was glad to see the connection between two wonderful projects, knowing that as a result of that connection, we have been able to help a lot of children in Sri Lanka over the years.
The Dadella Children’s Center is on large compound, with the playground as its centerpiece. The building itself is three stories tall, with classrooms on the first and second floors. More than 200 children go to the center every day. On the first floor, there is a preschool and daycare center for very young children, and the older children go to the center for after school tutoring programs.
Our sponsored children go once a week for leadership programs and English classes, and they are also provided with food, school uniforms, book bags, food, shoes, and school supplies, thanks to their sponsors. The center is important for children who are living in poverty, and most of them come from nearby villages; visiting the center helps them to keep up with academics, which are extremely competitive in Sri Lanka.
Better homes and better lives
After visiting with the children at the center, we set off to see some of the homes that Children Incorporated had helped build years ago. The houses were located in areas past a vast rice field, in the more rural parts of the town, away from the water – land that had previously been nothing but jungle before the tsunami.
I was impressed by the homes. They had separate bedrooms and kitchens, as well as a living area, and were all on their own piece of land covered in lush greenery. The houses were made of concrete - a much stronger material than the wood used to construct the homes that the families lived in before, which made the structures susceptible to damage from the weather.
It was nice to see that these families now have stability in their lives after all they have been through in the past. For them, the tsunami wasn’t something that happened a long time ago, and it isn’t something they have forgotten about. But they have repaired their lives, and continued to care for their children, having been given the opportunity to start over in a place they can call home.