Just like a flower I'm growing fine
Sachie Fernando and Anuradha Samarajiva find street children experiencing new hope at the cosy haven of the Friends’ Child Care centre at Dehiwala
Children sit around a table studying, take afternoon naps, or giggle happily with their friends. In reality, this isn't a traditionally perfect home scene, but it's easy to imagine it as one when you step into Friends Child Care. Located in the interior of Dehiwala, 60 children who would otherwise be living out on the street are given the chance to lead normal lives in a warm and protective environment.

Entering, visitors are greeted by the project team leader, Nilanka, a degree holder in sociology and social anthropology. The staff headed by a matron, are all screened carefully and undergo comprehensive training in matters pertaining to child welfare.

The centre focuses on improving the children's living conditions and providing education.Aged between five and 16, some of these children have been working from a tender age and were deprived of an education due to the lack of a birth certificate. This issue has now been brought to the notice of the relevant government authorities. Depending on their ages, the children attend either normal school or are given vocational training. Boys learn skills like carpentry and technical training, while the girls are taught sewing and dressmaking.

Chandila Colombege , a representative of the humanitarian organization, World Vision Sri Lanka, says, they "live like a large family". The centre is well equipped with facilities. The authorities see to it that cultural and religious diversity is maintained. The centre aslo sees to the interests of the parents of these children and has initiated a programme to rehabilitate them. Part of their problem is the "barrier between normal society and the street dwellers" says Chandila. To overcome the distrust between the two communities, they have monthly parent meetings where professionals speak about family planning and income generation.

Chandila described some of their success stories to us. There are many children who are at the top of their class even though they've never been to school before. Having undergone vocational training, one of the young men at the centre is now working happily at Maxies. The centre also has its branch in Kandy and a drop-in centre at Kotahena.

The Friends Childcare Project receives most of their funding from overseas although much more is needed.Yet, the biggest problem these children face is prejudice. The main aim of the programme is to build a "positive public image" and overcome the discrimination these young people face. It is not enough to be sympathetic, we need to be more constructive says Chandila.

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