They make the world a better place

It was time once again to reward real life heroes for their extraordinarily selfless acts of courage
By Nadia Fazlulhaq, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

“When you save a life of a person the contentment is everlasting and you truly feel like a hero. Words are not enough to explain how I feel when I see the four youngsters now enjoying their youth to the fullest,” says Thambirajah Vinayagamoorthy. Vinayagamoorthy from Karaithivu was awarded the Budal Na Gold Award, the highest award bestowed on a civilian at the National Civilian Bravery Awards 2009 for saving four youngsters struggling in a stormy sea after they were carried away by a rough wave on July 17, 2008.
Thambirajah Vinayagamoorthy receiving his medal from Swiss ambassador Ruth Flint.

The annual Sri Kandasamy Kovil festival was in progress in Jaffna on July 17 last year with many adults and young people taking part in the rituals. A surging wave suddenly swept several youth out to the sea. Vinayagamoorthy acted fast, knowing that every second was crucial. He got a rope, tied one end around his waist and the other on a boat, entered the water and swam to them, dragging them one by one to the boat. He managed to save four. Unfortunately, two had already drowned.

Vinayagamoorthy was among several real life heroes rewarded for their extraordinarily selfless acts of courage at the annual Civilian Bravery awards ceremony at the BMICH on Thursday.

The Gold Medal for Civilian Bravery for Asia went to Krishnamoorthy Sandaran of Malaysia for saving 18 people, including seven children from a ferry which caught fire in the middle of the sea nearby Tioman Island.

Special awards for Service to Mankind were awarded to Mona Purdy, a US citizen and Roshani Ichihara, a Sri Lankan-born Japanese citizen for their service beyond the borders of the country.

Two silver medals were awarded to a brave schoolboy, 17-year-old J.M.Nissanka Prabath who saved two youth drowning in Hambegamuwa tank and to W.W. Podimenike who rescued her husband from the jaws of death by battling with a crocodile. Seven other heroes received certificates of merit for brave acts last year.

S.H.Nihal de Silva who saved a shopkeeper from an armed gang who had come to rob the shop, Michael Damien Silva, a swimming instructor of Yatiyantota who saved three men bathing in the Kelani river from drowning and H.U. Ashoka Hapuaarachchi from Gampola who saved three from attack by wasps including a child were some of the heroes who were awarded.

W.A.Hemapala and W.A. Chandrawathie were recognised for saving the lives of four including a pregnant woman by jumping into the strong water current at night when the Attanagalle Oya flooded.
T.W.A. Pathmasiri Wijesinghe from Pugoda and his crew who were sand mining in the Kelani River at Nikawala Palliyawatte ferry saved ten persons whose canoe capsized.

They too were awarded certificates of merit, as was B.R.A.Premalal of Pallewela who saved a person who had fallen flat onto a rail track metres in front of an oncoming train. The National Civilian Bravery Awards was organized for the 16th consecutive year by the Foundation for Civilian Bravery with Swiss ambassador Mrs. Ruth Flint as the chief guest.

The Sunday Times exposure
The Sunday Times story of December 7, 2008

“Little girl lost and found: One woman’s determination”, was The Sunday Times story of December 7, 2008 about a caring Sri Lankan woman Roshani Ichihara who living in Japan came across a little Sri Lankan girl who had been abandoned there by her mother and went to great lengths to trace the child’s father back in Sri Lanka and have them reunited.

The Civilian Bravery Foundation decided to bestow an Award of Service to Mankind to Roshani Ichihara based on this story.

Little Dulakshi had been abandoned by her mother in August 2008 and was in an orphanage in Tokyo when Roshani heard of her. Speaking to The Sunday Times for the second time, Roshani said she felt a special bond with the child. “When I went to the orphanage in Tokyo last year, little Dulakshi came running to me not even knowing who I was. Today she believes that I’m her mother who is in Japan,” she said.

Roshani said that her love towards the little girl would last forever and that she constantly keeps in touch with Dulakshi’s father to see how she is faring.

The lady of the shoes

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Tall, slim and pretty, she looks more like a model who should be on the fashion ramps than knocking on doors and collecting simple and humble footwear.

Vivacious Mona Purdy, who has adorned the pages of many a magazine and been featured on many a TV show, has done so not just because of her good looks but for the passion with which she has been pursuing a cause.

A cause which, 650,000 pairs of shoes and 10 years later, has benefited thousands of the poorest of the poor in the remotest corners of the world.“It was meant to be,” says Mona who describes herself as “middle-aged”, explaining that at the beginning when she raised her hand to knock on doors, “they just opened”.
Mona Purdy

Recalling how it all began, she says that as a hair-dresser back home in Chicago, America she used to meet a lot of people. At that time she was working very hard as a single mother not only to clothe and feed her two daughters and son but like a “typical American” to give them all…..the piano lessons, a good home, a good car and everything they wanted.

Some Guatemalans whom she had met sought her help in securing equipment like pedals for a cycle race they were planning to hold in their village. She collected the items and when about to send them across, realized that it would be cheaper for her to accompany them on a flight. Little kids applying tar on the soles of their bare feet before running a race in the 95 degree sweltering heat, are the images that have been etched forever in Mona’s mind.

“I couldn’t get the images out of my mind,” says Mona, explaining that on her flight home she sat next to an orthopaedic surgeon who told her that if the children had footwear he wouldn’t have to visit the country that often not only to treat their infected feet but also to amputate their toes or sometimes even part of their feet.

The images remained with her and one day hearing Diana Ross’s song, ‘Reach out and touch’…… “If you see an old friend on the street and he’s down, remember his shoes could fit you…….Try a little kindness you’ll see it’s something that comes naturally, we can change things if we start giving” enlightened her.

That was when ‘Share your soles’ was born to provide gently worn shoes to the greatest in need around the world and Mona went around to neighbours and schools in her area. “I wanted a thousand pairs of shoes but got 5,000,” she smiles. She took the 5,000 pairs to an orphanage and assumed she had done a good deed, but when about to leave, a worker had asked her, “When are you coming back?”
The one-off good deed had taken a different turn. The tiny project that started in Mona’s garage has now blossomed so much that she now has a 400,000 sq. metre storage facility with 300-500 volunteers working every week, sending shoes to 40 locations in Central America, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Appalachia, Africa, Eastern Europe, India and even to the American Indian Reservations.

And it was also no easy task – ‘Share your soles’ does not just collect the shoes and ship it out to all those needy men, women and children.

“We sanitize them with hot water and bleach. We polish them and sort them. Those with holes, tears, excessive wear are discarded,” says Mona, stressing that the shoes are given and also taken with dignity.

They are also not dumped on people. When a shoe shipment goes to a village, all the pairs would be laid out and those who need shoes invited to come, look and take their pick. “Women can pick the shoes of their choice for their little ones after making them fit them on,” says Mona.

While the shoes flowed in, so also did the volunteers. “They come, they do a service. It is unique because they gather in the storage facility to clean shoes and send them to people they do not know and will never see or meet,” she says, adding that it is unique because the group which rallies round her is diverse, Americans, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews.

“It’s a win-win situation. This is the fine art of philanthropy, what love is and true humanitarian work, uniting people for the greater good,” she adds.

Ten years on, she feels “giving and giving shoes is not the answer”. A women’s and children’s rights activist Mona is ready to change gear now and empower needy people especially the women and the children.

Her plan is to put village women in charge of the shoe stocks and get them to distribute shoes to anyone who works for the development of the community including themselves. Then they have “earned” the shoes, she says, explaining that even the kids could help an elder. “It would be a way to learn not to put their hands out but to pull themselves up.”

Mona herself has taken this initiative up herself in a village in Tanzania, where she has bought a dairy farm, after doctors told her that most of the children have foot problems because their mothers have died young due to AIDS and they have not got sufficient calcium.

The farm would provide the much-needed milk, yoghurt and cheese to the children while giving employment to about 50 mothers as well for whom the only condition would be that they send their children to school.

Many are the awards she has secured, including ‘Unsung Hero’, ‘Newsweek Readers’ Choice’, the list goes on. For the past 10 years she has been under the radar but feels it is time to take the project to a higher level, as she needs funding.

Looking for sponsors, she says she makes people feel bad, guilty or sometimes good, so that they would pull out their cheque books. In the last 10 years it was something small but it mattered, now the time is right for something big which also matters, adds Mona.

I have shoes for children of the north

Mona Purdy was presented the ‘Award for Service to Mankind’ by the Foundation for Civilian Bravery at their 16th awards ceremony on Thursday.

It is a “profound moment” she says, because this, her first global award, comes on the 10th anniversary of her project.

This, however, is not Mona’s first visit to Sri Lanka. She was here during the tsunami and seeing the devastation had sent 15,000 pairs of shoes to the affected children.

Having returned from Haiti just recently and recovering from dengue fever which she contracted there, her next visit would be to the Amazon in Peru.

In Sri Lanka, she yearns to take a trip up north and initiate a project to send shoes to needy children in this country. “There are children without shoes and I have the shoes,” she smiles, explaining that she is meeting with government officials, Rotarians and others.

Mona, on this trip has brought soccer balls for the children of Sri Lanka as she feels all kids must be occupied and sports goes a long way in keeping them out of trouble.

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