By Raisa Wickrematunge – Photos by Asoka Fernando
It’s ‘teacher’s’ birthday today. Three boys run up to Chandrani Perera Hettigoda, fighting over who gets to be the first to hand her a handmade gift and card.
This isn’t a typical schoolroom scene, though. In fact, Hettigoda is not really a teacher, despite the misleading moniker.
Tucked away down a lane opposite the Savoy cinema is the Sri Jinananda Children’s Development Centre. Tiled floors and Buddha statues greet the visitor. Beyond this however, is a home (or orphanage) for boys. The children living here all come from unfortunate backgrounds. They have either lost one or both parents, or their families are too impoverished to care for them.
‘Teacher’ as Hettigoda is fondly known, faces the task of ensuring the children are fed, have enough supplies for school and stay healthy.
The children range in age from four and a half to 17 years old. They all go to school; some to a school nearby, others to Isipathana College. They even have a van that transports them to and from tuition classes and so on. When the boys turn 18 or so, they are handed over to their guardians. About four or five children are taken in by the Centre each year, and an equal amount leave. The home takes in children of all races and religions. Founder of the Centre, Pujya Panditha Urumutte Sugathananda Thero says, “Pain and hunger are common to everyone. It is felt the same way.” The orphanage was founded in 1995, when Sugathananda Thero took over the caretaking of the temple there. He started off with around five boys: children of relatives who had fallen on hard times or had unexpectedly passed away. Through word of mouth, others were alerted. Today, there are 70 boys who call the Sri Jinananda Centre, home.
The Centre faces many challenges, the Sugathananda Thero explains. Many entrepreneurs donate to the home, both locally and from countries like Japan (in fact, the building itself was donated by the Japanese). Those who are interested reserve particular dates to provide meals. On other days, the staff cooks small, simple meals, usually consisting of dhal curry and rice. The Centre just about manages to get by, the Thero says. There is a shortage of staff, just ten and mostly women, who have to discipline a rambunctious crowd of boys. Those are day-today issues, but there are long term worries too.
As the Sugathananda Thero explains, finances and simply repairing the building are the biggest problems faced.
While the schoolroom is cheerful, with colourful chairs and painted poles holding up the takarang (tin) roof, the living quarters are a different story altogether. The conditions have to be seen, to be believed. The impression received is of overwhelming dinginess. Rusty wires and concrete pillars jut out at random intervals. The staircase down to the dining hall is broken in places, and missing a railing. What’s more, a section of the floor has simply given way. A makeshift repair has been attempted by using wooden boards. The eating hall is sometimes filled with a stench from the canal running next to the building. Looking upward, you are met with the sight of a row of broken windows. It is no surprise that the orphanage does not take in girls. “If we find another building, we might take in girls,” Sugathananda Thero said.
The Centre does not receives funds from the Government. “We are doing work that the Government should be doing,” he said, talking of the responsibility he felt in guiding these children on the correct path.
Some Ministers did donate in a personal capacity, he clarified. The President’s son Yoshitha Rajapaksa has made several trips here on his birthday, for instance, to donate food. However, the Sugathananda Thero said no one had undertaken to help with the extensive rebuilding and repairwork that needs to be done. It is already falling apart. A section near the schoolroom has collapsed, and existing funds are now being directed towards repairing that section. The boys themselves seem well-adjusted. They crowd around to say that English is their toughest subject. Some will be sitting for their Ordinary Levels soon. They all talk of playing cricket on a narrow strip of land by the canal. They want to dive in for a swim, but the water is stagnant. They race up and down the coridoors, dodging obstacles with ease of practice. One boy runs to show us a project he worked on, another seven year old says he wants to be a soldier. They are, in short, friendly and energetic. Sugathananda Thero said that most of the children had forgotten their troubles, as they were in the company of friends.
But while the children look happy, they live in deplorable conditions. The building is crumbling and falling apart. Unless people step up to volunteer help, the situation will soon be worse-
and the fate of the boys, who have limited options and resources at their disposal, will be uncertain.