He wakes up eagerly and clamours to go to “school”. School is a trishaw ride away from their humble home off the main road, in a hall close to the Puttalam town. It is a Tuesday in August and regular schools are on vacation but 30-year-old Arush Ahamed has come to “school”. Most probably it [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A day out at a special school

It is performing therapy for the differently-abled in Puttalam from Sunera

He wakes up eagerly and clamours to go to “school”. School is a trishaw ride away from their humble home off the main road, in a hall close to the Puttalam town.

It is a Tuesday in August and regular schools are on vacation but 30-year-old Arush Ahamed has come to “school”. Most probably it is his only foray out of his home every week, for Arush is a ‘special’ person.

Performing arts therapy is what is being provided at this “school” being conducted by the Sunera Foundation. (See box)

Here 31 children and adults in the age-group 10 to 30 years benefit from this therapy. There is a mix of two Sinhala, three Tamil and the rest Muslim participants and also males and females.

Something to look forward to: Therapy through dancing. Pic by Ranjith Perera

What greets the Sunday Times at this Sunera workshop is music and laughter.

It’s fun times but suddenly the music takes on a different note and immediately the posture of the participants on the floor changes………big steps forward and back. Not all though are swaying. A few are seated, one is fascinated with the revolving fan and some are in a world of their own.

Some have features of Down’s Syndrome, while others just do not seem different but act differently. There are several children in school uniform, brought from the Special Education Unit of Puttalam’s Zahira College.

The life-story of Arush, we hear from him mother, Sarah Umma, 52, whose husband had abandoned the family when her three children were quite small. “Arush is my middle son and his older brother and younger sister are married and have moved out of our home,” says Sarah whose only income is from making and selling lavariya, after waking up at the crack of dawn.

Sarah and Arush exchange a look of tenderness and smiles across the room, that special smile between mother and son, that we see most mothers seated in corners do with their children.

She relates how as a child, Arush did not walk until he was about three. Doctors reassured them that Arush would be okay when he grew up and she did try to send him to Zahira College in Puttalam, but he had refused. Whenever he was persuaded to, he would leave his class and be with the tiniest of children. Later she heard that his brain was not developed.

Now in a tiny rented home, she is barely able to make-do with her paltry earnings and the Rs. 3,000 she gets from the government. So mother and son would either eat a lavariya or a bun for breakfast. Lunch is usually a little rice, pumpkin and gotukola and the Spartan dinner a few mouthfuls of rice saved from the afternoon or a roti.

Sarah’s day is full, looking after her 30-year-old son. “I have to cut his nails, his beard and taken him to the barber for a hair-cut. He tells me when he is hungry but cannot serve the food on his own.” However, there have been a lot of improvements after Sunera Foundation came into their lives.

The sessions break for tea and biscuits, sometimes the only meal for some of those attending the Sunera workshop.

Register-marking comes round, with the participants either seated cross-legged or sprawled on the floor. When their names are called out, they have to raise their hands and say that they are present. Dinez, Nanizan, Shihab, Arush Ahamed, Arshad and Lakmal Prasad do just that but Mazahi needs a little prodding by his neighbour before he flashes a big smile.

‘Mirror image’ is next on the agenda, doing the same thing that the trainers are doing, to which some are more responsive than others, while in those not responding, the trainers imitate the trainees.

Little things have gone a long way. Little things that so many of us take for granted as our children grow up. Brushing the teeth, washing the face, tying the shoe-laces, eating on their own and as boys hit the teenage years, being able to shave on their own.

The tales are woefully similar but also different. Life does not seem to have been fair for 49-year-old Y.G. Kumuduni who lives with her 14-year-old son, Lakmal Prasad Sampath, close to the 2nd Milepost on the Mannar Road.

Becoming a widow when Lakmal was just a year-old, she has worked as a labourer to keep hunger at bay. Now her daughter is married and lives independently but Kumuduni can work no more and look after Lakmal as she has undergone several operations.

The tears flow as she talks of her 17-year-old older son who has become the ‘man of the house’ and given up his schooling to work in a cloth shop in Negombo. He sends his precious earnings for the upkeep of his mother and disabled brother.

It was when she began haunting the Divisional Secretary’s office looking for succour recently after her operations that she was told about Sunera’s work.

“There is a venasak (difference),” says Kumuduni, adding that Lakmal loves to draw pictures.

There are also day-to-day worries for her and this afternoon her kitchen is bare. It would be on her way home with Lakmal that she will stop by the bank to check whether her son has put in money, as he scrupulously does. She will take a little out and buy some rice and one vegetable, may be about 100gm of string-beans or a beetroot. Fish and meat are “luxuries” far beyond their meagre budget.

Starvation is the least of her worries. The fears that keep her awake at night, tossing and turning on her mat are fears about the future. If Lakmal’s brother marries as he will someday, who will look after her disabled boy once she is no more?

This is the plaintive cry, the Sunday Times keeps hearing not only from impoverished families but also from the rich and influential who have special family members.

“Society gives sympathy but these children and parents need empathy,” says Zahira Primary School’s M.H.M. Nadeer which has a Special Education Unit with about 21 children.

Having heard of the Sunera Foundation’s workshop and realizing the need for training, the school is not only bringing several of the special children but also encouraging the participation of teachers.

It is during the tea-break that trainer, 35-year-old Premilla Kumari Ratnayake who travels from Seeduwa to Puttalam for the Tuesday session fills in the details. The fulfilment and satisfaction of a ‘vocation’ is evident in all that Premilla does.

“We provide drama, music, art and dancing therapy,” says Premilla, underscoring Sunera’s theme that “where there’s art there is hope”.
Helped by Indika Bandara Adikari (himself hearing-impaired who is a Sunera Foundation success story and is now a senior trainer) and Madhushi, the therapy begins by warming up to gentle and soothing music. “We don’t want the hyperactive children to be overactive, but just do enough exercising to relax them,” says Premilla.

The challenges have been many. Now they are the transport problems that some of the participants have including finding elephants on the Anamaduwa-Puttalam Road for those coming from those areas.

“If it rains they don’t come. If it doesn’t, they don’t come. When they have to go looking for water they don’t come,” says Premilla, while paying tribute to the government officials in the area for their immense support in getting these participants out of their homes.

As we chat, a child walks up and there are high-fives as well as triumphant thumbs up by several others. Next is art therapy. When we bid them goodbye we see them opening up boxes of crayons joyfully.

It is a ‘special day’ for them in their otherwise mundane lives, so much so that the mothers have whispered to the trainers that when they take the children’s blue Sunera T-shirts home, the fathers also wear them.

Workshops, dramas: The Sunera success story

The Sunera Foundation came into being after Sunethra Bandaranaike, Chairperson of Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust, saw participants with disabilities engaged in music, dance and drama at a workshop by Wolfgang Strange and Rohana Deva.

With the conviction that such initiatives should be supported and sustained, Ms. Bandaranaike established Sunera as a registered charity in 2000.
Although not being a theatre group for the disabled, Sunera uses performing arts as a therapy in the workshops held free of charge and stages an annual drama festival, ‘Samanalayaya’ to showcase the talents of the participants.

Currently 36 weekly workshops are conducted with a team of 32 trainers throughout the country, including Jaffna, Batticaloa, Galle, Matara, Kandy and the plantation sector.

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