As we walk in, 24-year-old Ajmeer runs up to the door with such a broad smile we can’t help but smile back. Ajmeer is the newest member of the “boys” at the Colombo Centre for Special Education (CCSE). He has been diagnosed with meningitis, is hyperactive and has suffered from seizures from a very young age, but none of that prevents him from being outgoing and friendly, keeping up a running commentary as we tour his school.
|Preparing for the exhibition. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
CCSE is dedicated to providing a safe and positive environment for men with autism, Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy and other mental conditions that affect learning. “Most of them are very sheltered in their homes.” explains CEO Charika Muttiah, “and this is one place their parents and caretakers are sure they will be loved and not abused.”
Despite the sunny atmosphere, CCSE’s situation is dire. They have hit the bottom of their funds. “We are not secure by any means,” Charika confesses. CCSE is running on the interest off a few investments they’ve made, she explains, and that is stretched thin every month. Most of the parents and legal guardians of the students pay a fee of “whatever they can”, but the CCSE’s main source of funding is private donations, and these are no more all that forthcoming.
Each year, CCSE engages in a number of fundraisers, the highlight of which is the annual sale of work. Through these events they acquire funds to cover their costs and make a little profit, but according to Charika, nothing substantial that can keep the centre running smoothly. “We are such a small group,” she says, “even to engage in something like a walk is difficult.
The school is in fact an airy house at 80/7 on Layards Road, Colombo 5 the main hall and verandah of which have been equipped for teaching math, sewing, art, carpentry, woodwork and other simple skills. The hype these days at CCSE is the Art room, these days more than ever because ‘Expressions 2012’, an exhibition of art and craft by the students at the centre is kicking off at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery on June 21. The exhibition will be opened at 9 a.m. by Chief Guest Sunethra Bandaranaike and go on until 6.30 p.m. There are paintings some done with oil paints, others with acrylic, still more in chalk and pastel, and even a few in mixed media, all revealing the strength of genuine character that speaks through their forms and colours.
This is no surprise considering the artists themselves are a lively and interesting bunch. The 28 “boys” as the gentlemen of the institution are called, are between the ages of 20 and 65, and though the CCSE website (www.colombocse.org) reports 50 percent of them lack an understanding of basic instructions, it is impossible not to admire their focus and patience.
And even as they are intent on their work, it is impossible not to enjoy their company. For many, the true gift of spending time with them is that of pure love and complete forgiveness. “It is amazing,” says art teacher Anusha, who has been working at CCSE for about a decade now, “you hurt them, they walk the other way and come back the next minute to kiss and hug you”. Her face exudes a brilliance of calm, and the other teachers we meet, Jean, Sister Agnes, Aunty Irene, are all radiant. The love is tangible.
It seems that the beneficiary-benefactor roles are reversed and that it is the teachers and staff that gain from the presence of the students in their lives. Even a brief visit of just over an hour has left me feeling simply content for the rest of the day. Make time for the exhibition on June 21, have a look at the paintings and tonnes of other nifty craft-work and most importantly, meet the artists. Do this not for their sake, but for your own.