Braving a condition that would generate nothing more than pity in our society, she passed the 2012 Grade 5 scholarship exam obtaining 153 marks –the first student to do so in her village school in the last 10 years. Visiting their home in Avissawella shrouded in a hedgy growth of betel, we are greeted by [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Little Miss Courage

Shaveen Jeewandara visits Rashmi Gunawardena, the bubbly ten-year-old who passed the Year 5 scholarship exam writing with her toes

Braving a condition that would generate nothing more than pity in our society, she passed the 2012 Grade 5 scholarship exam obtaining 153 marks –the first student to do so in her village school in the last 10 years.
Visiting their home in Avissawella shrouded in a hedgy growth of betel, we are greeted by Rashmi’s heart-warming smile. It takes a few seconds for the realisation of her condition to settle in.

Best foot forward: Rashmi Pic by Nilan Maligaspe

The fact that she was born with three limbs missing though has not deterred 10-year-old Rashmi Nimesha Gunawardena – she sat the Grade 5 scholarship exam writing with her left foot.

Her father Sarath Gunawardena, a teacher at the Deloluwa Junior School that Rashmi attends, is delighted with her achievement yet talks of the hardships that she has faced from birth. “My daughter cannot eat by herself, play by herself or take care of herself. You would expect a child to break down under these conditions, but I am proud of her spirit.”

He tells us that there used to be days where he would take Rashmi to the hospital late at night, so that she would not feel uncomfortable under everyone’s gaze. “Hamoma duwa diha balala paw wadey kiyanawa, eka waradi neda?” – Everybody looks at my daughter and pities her right in front of us, isn’t that the wrong thing to do? he asks.

The Gunawardena family has not been to a wedding in the last 10 years, merely to avoid such attention. We learn the cruel face of society, where disability is merely something to be looked down upon. “Nobody would know the real hardship of bringing up a child with special needs, until you come to this position. I’m not complaining, not in the slightest, but I’m just asking for society to understand the gravity of it,” he says.

It also takes a great deal of spirit to overcome such situations, and Rashmi seems to have it in abundance. Her mother sits her down and she takes out a beautifully kept exercise book, flips through the pages with her able toes and lands on an empty page. Dhammika Podimenike, her mother, gently places a pencil in between her toes as Rashmi grips it with confidence. We watch in awe as she weaves the pencil like a wand as words emanate with grace from its tip. Mage nama Rashmi Nimesha (My name is Rashmi Nimesha), she writes in neat flowery letters.

It is truly magical. We may have heard of such abilities before, but Rashmi is special. A tear escapes our eyes as she blithely continues writing with her foot, without the slightest timidity.

“Apitath issara hondatama andenawa, habai dan eka hurui” – Mr. Gunawardena tells us that they too would cry back in those days. In the earliest days of public attention, they would break down in front of the media, but now they are well seasoned. “As dekey kandula neha, habai hadawathin thaama andenawa” – There are no tears to show in our eyes, but our hearts are full of it.

Rashmi was fortunate to have loving caring teachers to work with. Initially she was not accepted to the Montessori, so a teacher came to their house every evening and taught her the basics. The first few days, she used to sit and listen while the teacher did the cutting and pasting. Little by little, she learned to work her able toes. Confidence grew with every piece of work that was completed – the speciality being her attention to detail.

“We immediately noted her thirst for perfection. She needed things to look neat, and wouldn’t settle for anything less,” her father says. This was when he decided to hang up her creations on a regi-foam board and display it to visitors. Rashmi gained immense satisfaction through the fact that her work was being appreciated. Her sister was also an immense support to her, as she would take care of all her needs, never complaining.

When it was time to enrol her in school, her parents decided on the Deloluwa Junior School, a small school in her village of Deraniyagala. She picked up with great dedication from the staff at Deloluwa and went on to be the first in 10 years to pass the scholarship exam. “Even now, people want me to enrol her in a popular school in Colombo, but that would only hinder the path that my daughter has come on . I want her to feel comfortable first, her happiness is what counts,” Mr. Gunawardena states. “I want my daughter to live a normal life, and slowly work her way up in life.”

“Don’t ask me to be careful, I want to learn this right” – Rashmi would tell her parents the first day that she got her artificial limb. She hobbled around on her artificial foot, fell down about twice, but has never fallen since. A passion to excel runs deep in her veins. Her mother brings out an organ, and Rashmi inches close to it, and starts playing a melody with her tiny toes.

“The future is what we look forward to, and I’m sure my daughter will do well, but it is a question that worries us every single day,” Mr. Gunawardena tells us. From a first hand view, he emphasises the need for a platform in Sri Lanka to foster children with special needs. Ergonomics to cater to them need to be in place, and the general attitude of the public needs a change. Pity should be replaced with appreciation and motivation. For children like Rashmi, are constant reminders of the feats that we as humans can achieve.

Rashmi recognised for her ‘will to excel’

Rashmi Nimesha was the winner of the Special Recognition Award for Academic Excellence at the 3rd Dirijaya Awards held on October 19, organised by the Enable the Disabled (ETD) Foundation.

“We recognised the gallant spirits of Rashmi, and her will to excel,” said Charmaine Vanderhoeven, Founder Chairman of the ETD, which is the major CSR programme of the Management Club. “What we’re trying to bring out is not charity, it’s recognition and acceptance. Empathy and not sympathy. Rashmi is a girl who has braved her difficulties, and given us reason to believe.”

Following the response received, ETD envisages taking the Dirijaya Awards to the North and the East, including more junior achievers, in the hope of motivating them to achieve greater feats.

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