Brilliant and needy
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Nirmala from the deep south is a second-year medical student at the Colombo University. The path to medicine has been long and arduous. Her father, a peon was killed in an accident when she was just eight. Her mother was not a working woman and suddenly she had to feed four young mouths.

Relatives, feeling sorry for this family left destitue, chipped in. Nirmala who went to the village school, struggled on and passed the Year 5 scholarship examination well. She moved onto a better school in the town, juggling her studies with the chores around the home. Most nights she burnt the midnight oil, with a tiny bottle lamp by her side. Spotting her abilities, her teachers went out of their way to assist her. The Advanced Level examination came round - she was through, with four straight As in science.

Then what? For students from affluent homes, there would be no question. Medicine would be the answer. But for Nirmala, money troubles were overwhelming. Books, clothes, bus fare, a stethoscope and even food, how would she cope? A newspaper advertisement, shown by a teacher, brought a glimmer of hope - a monthly scholarship.

"I get Rs. 1,000 a month and I use some of it for my needs, but save a little bit to give my mother. The money is very useful, but the guidance, advice and support I get are more valuable," says Nirmala, close to tears.

Who are these unseen, not much heard of people who help students scattered across the country, from distant Point Pedro in the north to Hambantota in the south, from Puttalam to Batticaloa? They are part of the Fr. Peter Pillai Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Many are the moving stories that Fr. Thomas Kuriacose, the 82-year-old shepherd of the Fund can relate in his long experience with students. But the start of the Fund, like the scholar and priest in whose name it has been founded, has simple and humble beginnings.

'We have a dream'
Want to have fun and help a needy but bright student at the same time? The Fr. Peter Pillai Memorial Scholarship Fund has organised a charity dinner, 'We have a dream', on Saturday, May 11 from 7.15 to 10 p.m. at The Ballroom, Galadari Hotel.

All proceeds from the ticket sales would be for the Fund. For tickets, please contact Tony Alles on 698467 (Office); Gemunu Rodrigo on 077-342040 or Kokilani Rodrigo on 505028 (Office).

Long before the Fund was set up, Fr. Kuri, as this jolly Jesuit is lovingly called, had been asleep in a tiny house, then the Jesuit House, down Clifford Place, when there was a knock on his window. It was a desperate medico, in his third year, whose family Fr. Kuri knew. He was there to let Fr. know that he was "chucking up". There was no money to continue. A boarder at the Catholic Hostel, he felt bad every time he sat down to a meal, because he was in arrears. He had only two years more to go in medical school, but his father drank and gambled.

Fr. Kuri spoke into the night with him and told him to give him two weeks more to "see what he could do". Later Fr. Kuri met a planter friend and "borrowed" Rs. 8,000, telling him honestly that he didn't know whether he would be able to pay him back. He passed the money onto the boy to tide over the immediate burdens and helped him along, until he passed out as a doctor.

The midnight knock got Fr. Kuri thinking about the hundreds of brilliant students who could hardly make ends meet. By that time he was Chaplain to Catholic students at Aquinas and he started "begging" to help needy students. He also organised "work camps" for the students to go to the remote village of Uruudiyandaluwa off Chilaw during the vacations.

"It not only taught the students the importance of social work but also helped build a beautiful relationship among the students themselves," says Fr. Kuri.

Even when the students finished their studies, they kept in touch. One day in 1979 they were meeting at Jesuit House, when a student who had migrated to Australia walked in. They were discussing the greatness of Fr. Peter Pillai and what they could do to perpetuate his memory.

Ideas flowed back and forth. They toyed with a suggestion that a scholarship should be given to a Josephian or a student of Aquinas. But there was unanimous agreement that Fr. Peter Pillai's memory was not limited to Catholics. "He was a national figure, rising above all religions. He was also a brilliant science man. He was an intellectual, great educationist, builder of Aquinas University College and indefatigable social worker. He had worked towards the education of youth and the improvement of the lot of the poor working class," explains Fr. Kuri.

Then they hit upon a scholarship for a brilliant, but needy science student. Next was the question of funding. Fr. Kuri set a target of Rs. 100,000. They collected Rs. 84,000 and requested him to start the Scholarship Fund. But Fr. Kuri was adamant. "The agreed amount was one lakh. If not we'd run out of money. The idea is to keep the capital as it is and give out the interest as scholarships," he told them.

At the right time God intervened, according to him. A former Aquinas "work-camper" living in Canada walked in and offered his purse to Fr. Kuri to take whatever was there.
From then on, it was just getting the procedure in place and advertising in all three languages. Initially two schols were given in 1981 and the numbers have now grown. "There are absolutely no barriers," says Fr. Kuri, adding that any student who has excelled in science and gained admission to university, from any religion or race can apply.

The only condition is "academic excellence and dire financial need". There are stringent checks - first an interview by a panel of eminent persons, then visits to the applicants' homes and also verification of their bona fides. Upto now 98 undergraduates have benefited, with 54 still in university. Earlier 29 A.L. students had also been given schols.

Every student while getting the schol has a monitor to whom he/she can turn to for advice and guidance. The monitors also provide books to the students and generally see to their needs. There are get-togethers and an annual function when all the families meet up.

Do the students return the kindness? They do, but there is absolutely no obligation. "All of us involved in the Scholarship Fund don't take a single cent for the administrative work and costs such as postage. We pocket it out ourselves. The students who benefit have no obligation to help, once they qualify. If they pass on the kindness in whatever way they can, by helping another, not only in cash but in kind that would only bring them fulfilment," adds Fr. Kuri. For those working behind the scenes to provide the scholarships, satisfaction comes from knowing that as the numbers of scholars swell, the spirit of Fr. Peter Pillai lives on.

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