Plus - Appreciation

She went out of her way to brighten her part of Planet Earth

Evelyn Hapugoda

Late-blooming friendships can be just as meaningful as those we forge in our early years. I came to know Evelyn Hapugoda some time in the 1980s. The link was the original “Lanka Woman” magazine, launched in 1984 under Clare Senewiratne’s able editorship.

Evelyn and I corresponded for several years – she in Baddegama and I in Colombo, as “old girls” of rival schools Bishop’s and Ladies’, before we actually met in person.

From the beginning Evelyn impressed me as one of those rare human beings who go all out to brighten whatever corner of Planet Earth they find themselves, with no thought of recognition or reward. She cared about people, regardless of class, caste, community or creed.

Typical is a letter I found, dated 4/3/2000, which is all about a School Drop-outs Project in which she was thoroughly involved, as founder-member of the Baddegama YWCA. Evelyn was angry with herself for needing emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia. It was during her enforced rest that she wrote to me. She was worried that the money for the project was running out.

I couldn’t help but smile when I read the following: “I was told that Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya are sponsoring a programme for school drop-outs. So I phoned Muralitharan and he wanted particulars of our work. He wanted them before 7/2, so I posted all the details on 27/1/2000. I then fell ill and was rushed to Colombo and was operated on 31/01, and now I am here and Muralitharan is in Pakistan.”

Among her many concerns at the time was the Halpathota Detention Home (which I had never heard of), which housed 186 girls and boys. Evelyn told me the official name for the home was “Sanasuma Niwasa”, but that it “really wasn’t a place of comfort”.

She added, “Here in Baddegama we Christian and Buddhist women work together, and our YWCA group has taken responsibility for organising three different courses for the girls – cookery, crochet and English.”

Paid teachers were employed with the help of local sponsors, and Evelyn was delighted that the girls were keen to attend classes.

Evelyn had a flair for enlisting help from friends for the good causes she espoused. When Bob Parsons, who headed the UK Save The Children organisation in Colombo a long time back, visited Sri Lanka as director of another UK-based organisation called “Hope for Children”, Evelyn got him interested in the Halpathota Home. His association donated, among things, a three-wheeler for the home’s use.

Evelyn had friends abroad, Sri Lankan and foreign. I found that many responded to meet the needs expressed by Evelyn – never needs of her own, but on behalf of the less-advantaged in her neighbourhood. For example, a Tamil friend of hers living in Australia was able to co-opt four Tamil Hindu friends who had left Sri Lanka after 1983 to send regular money donations for a child sponsorship scheme on behalf of Sinhala Buddhist children in Baddegama.

“They started by helping five children, and now 12 children benefit from their generosity,” Evelyn happily told me. When an American friend who had previously worked in Baddegama came on a visit, Evelyn told her about her desire to help a poor widow with three children. She wanted to build the family a cottage on a small plot of land she had received. The American left some money with Evelyn and later, from America, sent a gift of US$300 towards making the dream come true. How pleased Evelyn was to send me a picture of the completed house. The family now had a home to call their own.

Evelyn was a well-loved figure in the village, for she had the welfare of the villagers at heart. I recall her telling me how she encouraged them to plant kitchen gardens in chatty pots. Anyone in need could come to Evelyn in the certainty that she would be welcomed.

Evelyn’s marriage to Stephen Hapugoda was a happy partnership. When he was president of the Lions’ Club of Hikkaduwa, a Lions club in Finland collaborated with the Hikkaduwa club to sponsor poor children. Evelyn was chairperson of the scheme. “I supported him in his Lions’ Club activities, and he helped me in my YWCA work,” she told me.

A heart-warming aspect of the Finnish aid scheme was that the Finnish Lions, 20 to 30 of them, would visit Baddegama once a year to see their protégées in their homes and note what other practical assistance they could give. The Finnish group met at the Hapugoda residence and Evelyn would give them a farewell party that always ended with a rousing singsong, with the hostess at the piano.

What started out as sponsorship of five children developed to include 160 children in Hikkaduwa and 60 more in Baddegama.

Stephen Hapugoda was principal of Christ Church Boys’ School, where Evelyn taught music, singing and English. She also did much for the upliftment of his village. The road on which the Hapugodas lived together for 45 happy years was re-named K.S. Hapugoda Mawatha in Stephen’s lifetime. He died in 1989, and Evelyn carried on the good work alone. When she left her parents’ home in Pussellawa to marry Stephen, she embraced Baddegama as her own “gama”. She was never happy to be away from it for too long.

The Hapugodas have four sons and one daughter. Evelyn was thrilled to be present at the baptism of her first great-grandchild, born in America and brought to Sri Lanka for the occasion. The baptism took place early this year, in the Anglican cathedral on Bauddhaloka Mawatha.

Family and friends were looking forward to celebrating Evelyn’s 94th birthday on September 20 this year. Instead, Evelyn’s ashes were interred in Baddegama that day. Evelyn lived by the dictum: “If we do what we can to help those around us enjoy a better quality of life, we shall not have lived in vain.”

Dear Evelyn, you certainly made a difference by the way you lived your life, right up to the end. You will live on in the bright and fond memories of all of us who had the privilege of knowing you.

Anne Abayasekara

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