By Eva Kodithuwakku –
I am a Sri Lankan lady 72 years of age and was residing overseas for 12 years. Upon returning to Sri Lanka in 2007, I visited the Agape Children’s Home in Tissamaharama – an orphanage run by Rev. Dayaratne (Parish Priest of the Assembly of God Church) and his wife Sister Mala.
I offered to work at the Home as a volunteer, handling the administration and also to teach English to the children. During this period I was touched to see the way the children were brought up as one family. They called Sister Mala and Rev. Dayaratne ‘Amma’ (Mum) and ‘Thatha’ (Dad) who in turn showered the children with parental love they so deserved. I realized that this was not run like a normal orphanage but a loving home; they were ‘one big happy family.’
With no intention of opening an orphanage, Rev. Dayaratne and his wife Mala opened their home to receive an abused child way back in year 2001. With the increase in numbers, it was registered as an orphanage under ‘Agape Children’s Home’ in 2006. Presently it houses over a 100 children at any given time.
Agape Children pleading not to be taken away
To date it has sheltered around 200 children up to the age of 18 years which include some who are now employed and even given in marriage. These children include abused, abandoned, orphaned and destitute children sent by the Department of Child Care and Probation and the Magistrate Courts in Hambantota, Tissamaharama, Balapitiya and Angunakolapelessa of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim backgrounds.
At Agape Home, all girls and boys only under the age of 13 are housed in 8 cottages equipped with beds, linen, toilets and other basic facilities. Each cottage accommodates 10 – 12 children along with a full-time House-Mother who works on a voluntary basis. This section has a kid’s play area, playground, auditorium, large dining hall, library, computer room, common toilets and showers. Rev. Dayaratne, Sister Mala and their 20-year old daughter live in a separate house within the premises, while their second daughter aged 14 years lives in one of the cottages with the other children.
On the opposite side of the road is a 2500 sq ft two storied building used as a dormitory to house only boys of ages 13 – 18 years. This too is equipped with toilets, kitchen and a pantry. Rev. Dayaratne’s only son aged 15 also lives in this building along with the other boys.
The home is also blessed with a mini bus and a 3-wheeler, to meet the transportation needs of the children. The bus also picks up other children in the village on its way to school and back.
Agape has its own pre-school situated within its premises and is also attended by some of the children from the surrounding villages. The rest of the children of school going age attend two Government Schools in Tissamaharama. All these children despite their own religion learn Buddhism as a subject up to GCE O/L.
Amongst these are 03 children aged 12, 13 and 14 who attend ‘Apey Pattaw’, a school for children with special needs located in Hambantota. It is an emotional sight to watch all these children kiss their Amma and Thatha before they leave to school in the mornings. Another 08 year old boy who obtained a full scholarship attends an International School in Colombo.
Agape Home was placed first in the Hambantota District and third in the Southern Province for quality standards awarded by the Department of Probation and Childcare Services in 2010.
The home is registered under the Child Care Probation Department and does not receive any financial assistance from the state. However, there are many who have heard and visited the home, and they voluntarily support it in many ways. The main costs of running the home include electricity, water, food, medical, transport and education.
Due to the constraints of meeting these operational expenses and in order to become self-sufficient, a vegetable plot was started about 04 years ago behind the boys’ dormitory. Subsequently a poultry farm was set up with the intention to provide an egg a day for a child.
The farm then expanded to include a piggery, mainly to sell the animals when mature, which brought in a reasonable amount of income to run the home. Both the poultry and the piggery were handled by two men aged 54 and 21 years and not by any of the children. The home ran a small farm shop by the roadside to sell some of the produce from the farm.
On Saturday 23rd of March 2013, one of the men in charge of the piggery was preparing to slaughter one animal. During this time some of the older boys from the Home were engaged in clearing branches and undergrowth in the area where they had their vegetable plots. An interested party from the neighborhood known to the children had prompted the boys to leave the vegetable plot and run towards the piggery. These events had been discreetly filmed and was aired on a local TV Channel on 24th night, alleging that the boys from the home are used to slaughter pigs. Pastor Dayaratne was arrested the following day, based on this TV report and later released on bail.
The propaganda against the Agape Home continued with the distribution of handbills, posters and organized rallies in and around Tissamaharama. The same TV Channel on the 4th of April also showed a child whose face was disguised, purported to be from the Agape Home, accusing the Rev. Dayaratne of sexual abuse of girls in the Home. This child was never at Agape Home and is not connected to the Home in any way.
The same evening officials of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) arrived with a court order at the home to remove all the children. Despite screams and cries asking their ‘Amma’ and ‘Thatha’ to save them all 76 of children were reluctantly bundled into a single 42-seat bus amidst their protests and were taken away at around 9.00 pm. This painful incident will remain in the memmory these children for many years to come.
Photos of the incident taken at the time were confiscated and destroyed by some persons who came along with the NCPA officials. The children had been taken first to Tissamaharama and then to the Lunugamvehera Police Stations. The villagers living nearby told us how they heard the screams of the children up to their homes and had come running to see what was happening. The bus had then left and eventually arrived at the NCPA Head Office at Madiwela, Kotte the following morning around 7.30. All the children had been put into an empty hall in the building with only a few bed sheets on the ground to sleep on.
Up to now we have not had any contact with these children although we learnt that all of them have been scattered in various orphanages throughout the country. No Media Organization has interviewed these children. Among them are 3 girls and 3 boys sitting for the GCE (O/L) examination and 2 girls sitting for the GCE (A/L) examination this year. They plead that they be released to come back to Agape Home and continue their studies. Their school books, clothes and toys still remain in their little cottages with their House-Mothers still waiting anxiously for their return.
These children, who have never known what it is to have a home, love of a mother or father, never had peace in their lives, abused, never gone to school have got a new lease of life at the Agape Home. These scared and broken children found love, peace, joy and finally a FAMILY that each child calls his own. I know for a fact that they don’t have all the luxuries of life but they had the greatest treasure of a Mother, Father, brothers and sisters.
Sadly their lives have been ripped apart and their hearts broken by a handful of heartless selfish people with ulterior motives. My only request is that those responsible for the removal of these children which resulted in the breakup of this family will heed the voices of these broken children and allow them to return to Agape and unite once again with the only family that most of them have ever known.