Prithipura: A saga of caring

By Hiranthi Fernando

Little Sachini is seated on a small wheelchair smiling sweetly. Although eight years old, Sachini looks about four. Born in Dubai, she was sold by her mother to a woman who had not realized she was differently-abled. However, she had been looked after by her adoptive mother for seven years, until the death of her husband. Thereafter, Sachini had been brought to Prithipura Home.

Her adoptive mother, who is fond of the child, visits her, although she is not able to care for her. Unable to walk or speak, Sachini is completely dependent on her caregivers at Prithipura. A case is pending in courts now between the two mothers. Along with Sachini five children are accommodated in Jayawardene Cottage at Prithipura. Another eight-year-old, from Ratnapura, has been abandoned by her mother.

Nipun and Irshad sit in their cots staring listlessly. Their mothers are working in Dubai. A 12 –year-old boy, badly disabled, with twisted limbs, lay on his bed, whimpering pathetically. Gayan, another 12-year old, was abandoned by his mother, although she was given employment at Prithipura, to be with her son. These children, all differently-abled and unable to fend for themselves are cared for by two house-mothers assigned to the children’s cottage.

Two other cottages in the 3 ½ acre premises of Prithipura are occupied by women and young girls, while four are occupied by men and boys over 18 years. Each cottage is looked after by two house-mothers. The Matron of the home, Nita Silva said they have 73 residents of ages ranging from seven to over 60. “One of our residents, who had been in the Home for 40 years, died recently at the age of 60,” she said.
Prithipura Home was founded in 1962, when The Ceylon Fellowship of Service was formed by a group employed in the Colombo Gas Company. The Association was formed for the benefit of the mentally retarded and physically handicapped children in the island as they felt the service in this sphere was inadequate. They were fortunate to be gifted a property adjacent to the present Pegasus Reef Hotel in Wattala free for the worthy project, by the National Christian Council.
A creation made of sea shells by a resident

Bhikku Sumana, an English naval officer, who on retirement returned to Sri Lanka and was eventually ordained a Buddhist priest, was interested in setting up a boys’ home. He was the first Director of the Prithipura Home. Dr. Bryan de Kretser, an Anglican priest, who also had an interest in forming a home for mentally retarded and physically handicapped children, was the Deputy Director. Thus with funds contributed by the staff of Colombo Gas Company and well wishers, coupled with the efforts of a small band of dedicated people, the Prithipura home came into being with four residents.

“Today we have a waiting list of about 100,” said Ms Silva. She said they often have cases being sent by courts or the Provincial Council and they find it hard to refuse. The cases that are brought are differently-abled children who have been abused and those involved in legal disputes. “Recently one child was brought with badly infected wounds. With care and medication she has now recovered from the wounds.”

Many of the residents have been in the home for a long time. They come in as children or young people, but continue in the home as they have nowhere to go and no one to look after them. Many of them have been abandoned.

Varuni, 23 has been abandoned by her mother who ekes out a living selling pots and pans. Enoka, about 16 years, has been ill-treated and brought in by a step-mother. In one of the girls’ cottages, five girls of varying ages, were seated on the floor playing with an assortment of coloured blocks, Lego pieces and pencils. They looked up eagerly and posed for the camera. They like to have visitors, the matron said. “Thank you for photos,” said some of them who could speak. Some girls were playing with children’s toys, while some were making patchwork tablemats.

Many of these girls have eye problems, the Matron said, pointing out Neeranjala who needs an eye operation. “An implant was bought with money her mother contributed but now the doctors say it cannot be done because she has a heart problem.

When the Sunday Times visited Prithipura, they had a holiday from the activity classes. They have art and handicraft classes three times a week and dancing twice a week. None of them is able to have regular schooling. However, some have been trained to play in a band. The band performed at a sports meet organised for the home by the Lions Club recently.

In the men’s cottages, we meet Dharmadasa who has been at Prithipura since its inception. He remembers Bhikku Sumana and Bryan de Kretser. Dharmadasa had been attending school when he began having fits. He became paralysed due to a wrong injection being administered and is now confined to a wheelchair. Another resident, Karim can speak and also helps out with some chores. Premasiri too has been in the home since its inception. Physically able, he helps in everything around the home and is very hard working, according to the matron. When the tsunami struck, the home was flooded and it was Premasiri who helped the Army and Navy to rescue the residents.

The Assistant Matron, Mrs.Wijeratne, who maintains the accounts, said the monthly expenses of the home, amounting to about Rs. 400,000 are met mainly on the interest received from fixed deposits. Donations of meals such as almsgivings are received about 16 – 17 days each month. They get donations in kind such as rice and tea, which also help. Wilde Ganze, a company from Holland, donated a new kitchen and a bread making machine. This company also sends an annual donation, which helps to pay a bonus to the staff.

An urgent need is to find a donor to repair Bates Cottage, which is in bad shape, says the Matron. The other cottages are in good condition. They have difficulties in finding a physiotherapist and dentist to visit the home regularly though there is a therapy room and a dental room in the premises.

The dedicated staff of Prithipura have a challenging task in caring for the residents as many of them need to be washed, dressed and fed. Residents who are physically able, help with the chores around the home. A few of the male residents can be violent at times but are manageable thanks to the matron’s rapport with them. Despite the severe handicaps which deprive them of much hope for the future, they seem well cared for, happy and content.

Resources stretched to maximum

Though the Prithipura Home is not a state institution, it is frequently compelled to accept children from court even when there are no vacancies, says Shilanth Algama, Secretary, Ceylon Fellowship of Service. This is a serious problem they face with the Social Service Ministry of the Western Provincial Council and Mr. Algama has appealed to the Secretary Ministry of Social Services in this regard.

“When a court case is in progress, a disabled child has to be sent to a home for the disabled for a temporary period,” Mr. Algama said. “The government does not operate sufficient homes for the disabled, so they are sent to us. If there are vacancies we can take them but when we don’t what do we do?” A severely disabled child needs a fulltime caregiver, he points out. It takes six hours to feed such children.

“The only assistance we get from Social Services is Rs. 10 per day per resident. This in no way covers the cost.”

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