By Kamaya Jayatissa –
“A man’s true wealth hereafter is the good that he does in this world to his fellows.” – Molière
Some may call it charity; I would rather call it solidarity or even responsibility towards the ones in need. This week was for me a reminder of what generosity towards one another truly means and mostly a dreadful reminder of what it is not to have sometimes the most basic things in life.
Having attended two successive events organized by Candle Aid Lanka (formerly AFLAC International), I was both inspired and impressed, to say the least, by the work accomplished by Capt. Elmo Jayawardena and his volunteers. Founded in 1995 by Gratiaen Prize winner, pilot and humanitarian Capt. Jayawardena, the Candle Aid organization aims at fighting poverty through health, shelter, food and community development. With 700 volunteers from around the world, the foundation keeps on growing with a variety of projects such as libraries, health clinics, student sponsorships, and shelters.
Last Tuesday, May 14th, marked for the organization another landmark opportunity to prove its dedication to children with the inauguration of an incredibly challenging and inspiring initiative, the DAS programme (Differently Abled Swimmers). To be honest, this Tuesday was the very first time I heard about Candle Aid. It was also the first time I met the man behind the scene, Capt. Jayawardena, a man of great generosity and commitment.
The DAS programme is, I must say, one of a kind. It all started post-tsunami, in 2007, when the Foundation built a small pool at St Sebastian’s College, in Moratuwa, and started “Swim for Safety”, an initiative aiming to train children who did not have the means to learn to swim. Having successfully trained over 5000 children, the programme moved one step forward last week by bringing altogether a new concept: teaching the visually handicapped, hearing and speech-impaired children to swim.
Sounds impossible, right? Well, while all of us present on that day, including the Chief Guest, Justice Weeramantry, wondered how the swimming coach would actually manage to get those children to swim, I am pretty sure that none of us would have expected it to look that easy. The half an hour practice session was indeed done with such an ease that after a few minutes we almost forgot that the upcoming athletes who were in the pool that day were actually sight impaired and could not see where they were going; having for direction only the voice and instructions given by their coach. More impressively, for these newly trained swimmers, it is not only about overcoming their fears in an environment which may seem unsafe for the most of us, water. It is also about achieving in sports as their peers have, as explained to us in sign language by one of the youngsters.
The second event took place this Saturday at the Rajagiriya Church where a distribution of bags, books and toys was co-organized by Candle Aid for children who are less fortunate; all of them residing in shanties located close to the Church. Despite their young age, most of the children present that day were experiencing some of the cruelest forms of poverty with very little access to education. For most of them, their parents are unable to even assist them with homework due to their poor level of literacy. Being financially deprived with no access to private tuitions these children –around 90 of them- follow the free tuition classes given by a few volunteer teachers who take two hours of their time every Saturday to provide them with educational assistance in English, Sinhalese, Tamil and Maths; irrespective of their ethnicity or religion.
The work done by these teachers is commendable and needs to be pointed out. Though this might seem very little for some or even common to others, I wonder how many of us would actually take the time and concern to take a break from our own lives to simply help the ones in need. We sometimes even forget that, in spite of a steady economic growth, poverty remains a major issue in Sri Lanka where wealth is unequally distributed both in terms of space and sector. This is unfortunately not only the case in rural and estate sectors but also in the capital itself where for some parents, each day becomes another fight for survival; and in the middle of it are their children who still strive for a better chance.
Both these programmes, among many others carried out by Candle Aid, proved to be quite successful and inclusive. Not only do they help those children to build up their confidence but it also takes away their fear by teaching them responsibilities and self-dependency. Similarly, it teaches us to become better human beings by taking the time to actually make a change by helping the ones who truly need it.
Most of these children are deprived of many rights: the right to play with other children and to enjoy their childhood like other children of their age or simply the right to opportunities. With these two programmes, Candle Aid succeeded in promoting their development and helping them realize their full potential. Moreover, one may observe that the organization’s achievements cannot be dissociated from its founder president, Capt. Elmo Jayawardena, and its volunteers whose commitments are exemplary to all of us. To me, their generosity has given a set of wings for these children to fly.