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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.