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20th December 1998

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A gift that goes a long way

AFLAC- Association For Lighting A Candle lives up to its motto –it is better by far to light a solitary candle than curse the darkness

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

A time for giving

The house is tiny. It has a cramped sitting room, one bedroom, a little space for the kitchen and a leaky, dingy toilet. But for the family that occupies this house it is a home. They are very happy. Who is this family? If we were the parents in that home, we may have considered ourselves "unfortunate" and grumbled about the hand dealt to us by Providence, God or Destiny. Or we may have accepted our "fate" with stoic resignation.

I was in for a massive surprise when I visited them on a rainy day a couple of weeks ago. The father and mother were both smiling. There were no haggard lines of worry on their faces. They were happy, not only happy, but also contented. Acknowledging that she was a wee bit tired because two of her four children were ill that day, the mother led me in to their home. Yes, she has four children, three of whom are physically handicapped. A beautiful girl lay sprawled on the bed.

She did not seem to have control over her limbs. She was also gasping for breath because she had a cold. The boy was seated in a cane chair, limbs hanging loosely. Another frail girl was attempting to straighten the bed-sheets as there was a "visitor".

What had gone wrong? The mother rushed to get some photographs. The whole family (the name has been withheld to protect their identity) pictured together, when the children were small, without an indication that calamity would strike later. Smiling children. The debilitation had set in later, striking down three. According to the mother the doctors had said something was "wrong" with the parents' blood.

One daughter was normal. She was now holding a job that brought in some money. But life was tough. It was difficult for the mother to carry the two severely disabled children alone, so the father helped out. Lots and lots of clothes had to be washed daily, because the children soiled them often. Then there was the cooking and the cleaning of the house to be done.

The father was asked to leave his job because he took too many days of leave - to look after the children, take them to hospital and help his wisp of a wife. A kind soul donated a trishaw. After helping his wife with the numerous backbreaking tasks around their home, he would go looking for hires. But that was not enough to keep the home fires burning.

Then succour came in the form of the "Gift a Meal" programme of the Association For Lighting A Candle (AFLAC), which provides this family of six with rations - rice, dhal, a little dried fish - to the value of Rs. 1,000 every month.

It goes a long, long way. It helps this family to lead at least a hand-to-mouth existence, with one square meal a day. Before that, many a day, the father and mother had foregone their meals to provide for the children whom they handled with such tenderness and love.

Later I wended my way to the home of Sarath Upali. He had been the driver of a businessman. One day he took leave and went to Torrington to get a letter from the provincial council office to admit his daughter to a school. He did not know what fate had in store for him. A bomb went off and he was in hospital for one whole year. When he was discharged able-bodied Upali had two useless legs and was confined to a wheelchair. The terrible scars on his stomach are evidence of the suffering not only of Sarath, but also of his family - wife and two daughters aged six and three.

But he was a stubborn man. He decided to fight fate and in his tiny room he set up a small table and began selling cigarettes and beedi. But the income was meagre.

Then AFLAC came on the scene and once again provided dry rations so that the family would not starve. Later, well-wishers helped him build a tiny room to run his "boutique", which now boasts of other items too such as biscuits, soap etc.

What is AFLAC and who is behind it? It is admirable that unlike many so-called philanthropists or non-governmental organisations which "donate" something and seek publicity for themselves, the "father" and the main coordinators of AFLAC do not want their names promoted.

Explaining their motto of "It is better by far to light a solitary candle than curse the darkness," the person who pilots AFLAC says: "It is not important for our names to be put in the newspapers. The essential thing is publicity for our cause, so that people will lend us a helping hand, so that we in turn can help others."

How did it all start? "When I left school I was earning a small salary. Then I got a break in the form of a good job that paid well. I was comfortable, my family was okay and I considered myself wealthy," he smiles.

AFLAC was born in 1995 because it occurred to me that it was "payback" time. They started with just Rs. 6,000 from a well-wisher. Last year the society generated Rs. 2 million, he says.

And they are a unique group, with the fundamental principle that most projects work if there is good coordination. No money is spent on administrative work. At present, they are dealing with six major projects - education, clothing, shelter, health, vision and food — and a number of small ones such as assisting blind people.

Education: AFLAC awards 133 student sponsorships, with each schoolchild receiving Rs. 500 and a university student Rs.1,000 a month.

Health:Donations ranging from Rs. 85,000 to Rs. 1,500 are given to ongoing health projects.

Vision: AFLAC has carried out 10 vision projects costing over Rs. 100,000 in various parts of the country.

Clothing: "Nearly new" clothes received from abroad are sold and the funds used to provide new clothes, sheets, pillowcases etc to inmates of homes.

Shelter: A few houses have been built by AFLAC for needy people.

Meanwhile, the group is expending much energy trying to get more donations for their newest Gift a Meal project, launched on February 1, this year.

The project is based on the fact that Sri Lankans have a custom of giving alms very often. People in this country like to help others in their own small way. Already 22 families, including Sarath Upali's and the other family with six mouths to feed, benefit through this project, AFLAC's man-behind-the-scene explains.

A time for giving

As Christmas draws near and we ponder on the real "spirit" of the season, which is not only getting, but also giving, we could consider a small donation to AFLAC's Gift-a-Meal project.

This is how it works - a donation of Rs 1,500 just ONCE a year, will help AFLAC provide a minimum of 50 meals.

The two categories of beneficiaries are destitute families and institutions. Each family would get provisions worth Rs. 1,000 monthly for the whole year, while the institutions are provided meals on specific dates requested by the donors.

Too many people go hungry in this country and something needs to be done, as AFLAC stresses. So, if you decide to give your "mite" to a needy family or an institution, please call Spencer Silva on phone no: 648819

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