He couldn’t hear them call his name, neither did he hear the deafening applause that followed. But when he saw his name flash on the big screen Ananda Guruge knew he had won the coveted Volunteer of the Year award at the second V-Awards ceremony organised by the United Nations Volunteers, News First, and the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Riding out of his silent world he reached out to others

The winner of the coveted Volunteer of the Year award Ananda Guruge has helped thousands of hearing impaired people like himself to realise their dreams and become useful citizens of the country

He couldn’t hear them call his name, neither did he hear the deafening applause that followed. But when he saw his name flash on the big screen Ananda Guruge knew he had won the coveted Volunteer of the Year award at the second V-Awards ceremony organised by the United Nations Volunteers, News First, and the Ministry of Social Services. The joy in his eyes said it all, as it was more than just the trophy he carried home that night – it was also the hopes and dreams of thousands of hearing impaired persons like himself across the country.

The second V-Awards ceremony held on December 6, signified a light that was shone on those who served the community in silence. While Ananda won the ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award, the ‘Youth Volunteer of the Year” award was awarded to Araliya Abeysekara, and the Special Award on ‘Volunteering for Water’ was won by Nalaka Priyantha.

Ananda: All smiles as he receives his award amidst thunderous applause

Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, Prof. Siri Hettige, Mrs. Jezima Ismail, Prof. Somasundaram Sandrasegaram and Ms. Emelda Sukumar were the members of the judges’ panel. Back home in the tiny village of Wellawatta in Hikkaduwa, Mr. Guruge greets us at the Southern Province Deaf Association (SPDA) that he founded. Ishani Madushani, a volunteer working with the Association for the past two years joins him to translate Mr. Guruge’s story for us.

“I was born into a family of six as the only hearing impaired child,” says Mr. Guruge, now 56. Fortunately, his parents were of a good socio-economic background and he never felt the pain of being compared adversely with his siblings. Being taught at the Rohana Special School for the Deaf and Blind, Matara, Mr. Guruge was a bright student who soon became well versed in sign language. He also had a creative spark and developed a great liking for batik designing. “During my days at the Ragama Vocational Training Centre I found out that I was good at batik design and chose it as a vocation. This was also the time when I came across many hearing impaired people like me,” he recalls.

Struck by the plight of thousands of others who were not privileged enough to attend special schools Ananda Guruge set out on his old push bicycle, riding through the isolated villages of the Galle district searching for them.

Soon people in every corner of the district heard of the hearing impaired man who rode a bicycle from door to door searching for the hearing impaired. The Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf offered their assistance. “A true helping hand was the late Member of Parliament Sarath Gunawardena,” said Mr. Guruge, adding that he was the first person who donated a sewing machine for his use, but Mr. Guruge had said that he would only be happy when everyone else was given the same assistance.

Before long, he had gathered a group of 30 deaf persons, and the SPDA was born in 1995, at Peraliya in a small praja shalawa. Initially the students were taught how to converse using sign language. “Communication is naturally the biggest barrier we have. We face a lot of problems daily, within our families and at government institutions when we have to get fundamental services,” said Mr. Guruge, making a plea to the Government to include at least one person versed in sign language in their cadre at public places. “This would greatly help us in our daily life.”

Mr. Guruge recalls a young deaf child who always seemed depressed – he discovered it was due to the sheer frustration of not being understood. “Even her family members did not understand what she was trying to tell them and she had almost given up on life.” Mr. Guruge got her parents to come to the association and learn proper sign-language.

Students once they learned sign language became active in society. This was when he introduced training in batik design which led to employment at garment factories for some, followed by courses in carpentry, sewing, IT, and handicrafts. The SPDA grew from a small praja shalawa to a fairly large institution, with many stories of success, when tragedy struck in the form of the 2004 tsunami.

All of the 250 students were left helpless in the wake of the disaster, hopes and dreams shattered, but Mr. Guruge’s determination never flagged as he garnered the support of the French non-profit organisation ‘Secours Populaire’ and rebuilt the present building at Wellawatta, in 2006.

The new centre is equipped with a training centre and a sales outlet. Mr. Guruge shows us to the shop where batik items ranging from bags to cushion covers of vibrant colours, made by the students are on sale.

“It was a new beginning, and we knew that it was time to reach out to other parts of the country as well,” says Mr. Guruge. They extended the hand of support to the deaf in the Northern District. It was with the help of Field Director of Brigham Young University Hawai‘i, Indrajit Gunasekera, (who also serves as the Advocacy Advisor & Project Director at SPDA), and the American Embassy that they initiated awareness programmes up North this October.

Subsequently, a three-day residential youth camp held in Galle, saw the participation of a large number of hearing impaired youth in the Northern Province as they developed interpersonal and problem solving skills, engaged in personal development, and practised creative arts in Sign Language at the camp.

Mr. Guruge said that the application for the V-Awards was on impulse and he never expected to win. Showered in confetti, Mr. Guruge was thronged by his hearing impaired students who came up on stage in a moment of spontaneous joy that brought a tear to many present. The gestures he was making were soon translated to words of thankfulness, as he made a promise to carry his work forward.

Sharing her thoughts, Ishani Madushani tells us that the hearing impaired have a separate culture of their own. “It’s a beautiful culture where race and religion do not matter in the least. All they want is to be understood,” says Ishani. Society is not always receptive to hearing impaired people, she says. “We need to break free from being ignorant and given them a chance to come up in life.”

Speaking of other fundamental rights that the SPDA is championing, Ishani says that they are requesting the Government to issue special driving licences to hearing impaired people, as many other countries have already implemented this policy. There is a need for proper translators, and possibly the inclusion of sign language lessons in the school curriculum. There is also practical guide to sign language called the ‘Sri Lanka Sign Dictionary’ which apparently is not accepted by some bookshops due to poor sales.

The SPDA has come a long way in helping the deaf community to stand up on their two feet. There have been more than 1000 students helped by the association and some of them are now all over the world. It is heartening to see Mr. Guruge log in to Skype and connect with his students across the globe as they happily converse, in a better world created by themselves.

Donations can be made to the Hikkaduwa Commercial Bank Branch Account, bearing number: 8140022519 and name ‘Southern Province Deaf Association’. Visit their website on www.spdasrilanka.org for more information on how you can contribute.

Youth Volunteer of the Year – Araliya Abeysekara

Her inspiration was in realising that all people have equal rights. Araliya Abeysekera, a past pupil of Visakha Vidyalaya now 21 and currently reading for her Bachelors in Psychology, started volunteering at the age of 12 with the Sarvodaya Movement in aid of tsunami victims. Araliya joined every possible volunteer organization she could, managing her expenses and reaching out to people in need with her pocket money of Rs 300 a day. Soon she was volunteering at the National Institute of Mental Health, at the Forensic Psychiatric Ward.

Araliya Abeysekara

“Awareness about volunteering and its benefits is relatively low in Sri Lanka. There are just two nurses for psychiatric rehabilitation and a few minor staff where I work,” she says. When compared to other countries Sri Lanka has many holidays and this young volunteer feels that school children and young adults should involve themselves in volunteering in their spare time. “There are many who need therapy and someone to talk to and volunteers can give them that priceless gift,” she says.

Those who are mentally ill find it hard to maintain good hygiene, and seeing them improve after therapy is greatly satisfying, she says. “When in therapy those who don’t speak up first gradually learn to open up. Mentally ill individuals need someone to talk to and by doing so their mental status improves,” she tells us.

Araliya is currently doing a study on Heroin addicts in prisons such as Mahara and Welikada. Her aim is to organize and establish rehabilitation centres within the prisons to rehabilitate them.

‘Volunteering for Water’ H. M. Nalaka Priyantha

Nalaka Priyantha

Nalaka and the villagers from Mirahawatta had been suffering for 40 long years without a proper water supply; they had to walk at least half a kilometre just to obtain drinking water.

Nalaka took the giant step of initiating a project to provide potable water to the villagers. His project covered the villages of Karagahapathana, Wagoda, Mahathanna, Udawelahandiya, Kanpitiyawala and Ulpathkumbura and provided water for 320 families. The Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage provided the necessary raw materials, while the villagers themselves had voluntarily contributed their labour to make the project a success.

The estimated expenditure of this 13 km long water system was Rs. 11.2 billion where the contribution of villagers in terms of labour was estimated at Rs. 2.2 billion. “People are willing to work. It’s just we don’t have the capital to buy necessary equipment and materials. I humbly request Sri Lankans to take more interest in helping villages without drinking water,” urges Nalaka.

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