The garden is sprawling and the walauwwe-like home is open and welcoming.
Who lives here, passers-by on the Mirigama Road, Demanhandiya, Negombo, would wonder. It is certainly a family, but on closer inspection a family of a different kind…….with familial bonds forged within this home, even though they may not be related by blood. For the stay here is for life.
Most of the 28 people, five men and 23 women, who live in this cozy and warm environment, have no other home to call their own except this - the Wester Seaton Cheshire Home. All placed here due to being mentally or physically handicapped, the youngest is 29 while the oldest is 72.
Even though the beginnings of the Cheshire Home back on April 12, 1962, were humble, meticulous records had been kept of whoever came under its roof, in a yellowed and dog-eared book, a tradition maintained even now with a register.
|Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
While the staff went about their work efficiently and the capped and aproned cooks were preparing the lunch in a spic and span kitchen when the Sunday Times visited the Cheshire Home recently, a knot of people, some in wheelchairs, were relaxing under trees. Those able had finished their small routine chores including helping with the folding of laundry, washing up the dishes, sweeping, cleaning sprats, peeling onions and engaging in agriculture.
Elderly Lakshman Fernando approaches us with palms together in the traditional greeting and makes it clear that he will be "going home tomorrow". That's what he has been saying every single day of the 12 years that he has been here. When asked how old he is, he is quick to reply that he is 30.
It is Chitra's turn next to make friends with us, smiling sweetly and repeatedly asking for powder, balloons and dolls. These are requests made every time members of the Board of Management as well as the Ladies' Welfare Committee, both groups who perform an honorary service, come to the Cheshire Home, which is very frequently. Kindly they promise to bring her more, although her cupboard is already full of the stuff she loves.
This haven for many who have no place else to go, had been set up 50 years ago by Mrs. Jolly who had come from England, in the residence of the owner of the Wester Seaton Estate. One of two Cheshire Homes (the other is the Sir James and Lady Peiris Home at Mount Lavinia), Mrs. Jolly had been assisted by the wives of those working for the London Cable & Wireless Station located in the area, says 86-year-old Gladys Weerasinghe, a founder-member of the Ladies' Welfare Committee.
The others had been Monica Vantwest, Felicia Perera, Eileen Bartholomeuz, Eileen Bevan, M. Jansz and Mrs. Schrader whose first name eludes her now.
The two Cheshire Homes here are under the Cheshire Homes Foundation Sri Lanka, the first Chairman of which in the early 1960s had been then Inspector General of Police, Sir Richard Aluvihare, followed by other eminent personalities such as H.N.G. Fernando who was to later become Chief Justice and well-known Surgeon Dr. P.R. Anthonis and more recently lawyer K.I. de Silva. Currently, hotelier Anthony Fernando is Chairman.
The very first resident of the home was Cyril, a boy of 18, says Mrs. Weerasinghe, recalling the early days.
The pathetic tale of Cyril unfolds. How he had gone to sell papers in the town to earn money to go to Colombo for his first job, when he met with an accident. Unable to talk or walk even after eight months in hospital, it was not only Cyril who came to the home but also his father, Simon. "Simon worked in the home as Cyril was his only family and he wanted to be close to him," says Mrs. Weerasinghe.
Memories of those days come easily……..Captain Leonard Cheshire's visits to the home twice and the sumptuous lunch they hosted for him.
For, it had been Captain Cheshire's experiences and subsequent dejection that had steered him towards helping the less fortunate. An officer in the Royal Air Force he had been a decorated serviceman of World War II, being awarded the Victoria Cross, when he was nominated to be an observer by then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee on the flights which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. On a subsequent visit, he had been smote by the magnitude of the devastation.
Depressed and disconsolate, when he heard of an airman dying of cancer back in Britain, he had brought him home and cared for him until his death. In 1991, he had accepted a life peerage becoming Lord Cheshire of Woodhall. Struck down by a motor neurone disease, though he died disabled, his good work lives on in all the homes opened in his name not only in his home country but across the world.
"In the beginning, the ladies collected foodstuff from houses for the home but later when Ranee Anthonis and Mini Jayamaha joined us they used to practically go-abegging to all the shops in the town for food and cash," says Mrs. Weerasinghe. Flour, sugar, rice, tea, coffee, they collected while the cash donations were five or 10 rupees.
Soon fund-raisers followed, with the first being a sale at the home itself with the materials being provided by the ladies and the second a dance at the New Rest House in Negombo, according to her.
Those were also the days when the Shell Company was active and helped to equip one ward with beds, she says.
Leaving the past behind, current Chairman of the Foundation, Mr. Fernando, is hoping to get quality assurance for the home, making it a model not only for the Cheshire world but also for others in Sri Lanka.
This home is affiliated to the Global Cheshire Alliance based in the United Kingdom, which links homes in 55 countries. There is no funding from the Alliance but it has promised support us in the bid to get quality assurance, he says.
Moving away from the concept of in-house care and institutionalized charity to development and rehabilitation in a community-based setting, we are also assisting 28 disabled people in Negombo alone to earn a living, says Mr. Fernando, citing the example of K.H.A. Somaratne and Udesha Madusanka.
We treat residents of the home like customers and give them the best, Mr. Fernando says, as the home prepares to celebrate its golden jubilee. Tiny touches come out as evidence. The day's menus which include dessert are pasted prominently so that everyone, resident or visitor, knows what will be on the table.
The ultimate hope, however, is to make the Cheshire Home a "transit place" where people who need care will be given the resources to study and undergo therapy and then be sent back to where they belong in the community.
That's the future. But for now, while some are laying the table for lunch, 60-year-old Savithri, whose "Mum" had been a well-known music and elocution teacher in Negombo, plays a medley of ever-greens on the antique piano donated by a well-wisher. With her parents' death and no other family to look after her, Savithri who is "mildly soft in her mind" has found her niche here.
As if echoing the thoughts that she cannot express, her fingers fly over the keys, rendering 'Que sera, sera……..what will be, will be'.
Funds needed to give them
In a bid to provide the best to its residents, the Cheshire Home is seeking not only donations for meals but also funds to re-start the vocational training programme which has come to a halt due to lack of resources.
Please lend a helping hand by sending your donations to the Negombo branch of the Bank of Ceylon Account No – 0001372370 in the name of Wester Seaton Cheshire Home. The Swift Code is BCEYLKLX, the Bank Code 7010 and the Branch Code 018.
For more information, please contact Foundation Chairman Anthony Fernando on mobile: 0716834002 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com