Sri Lanka Observations

With the announcement that Mother Teresa has been named a saint, this is an interesting place to be this week.  Mother Teresa's community, the Missionaries of Charity, operate ten orphanages throughout Kandy, Sri Lanka. The local one is Daya Nivasa - Home for Abandoned and Differently-Abled Children and Girls.

When the program coordinator at Green Lion (the volunteer organization with which I am working) was providing an overview of the placement options here, one of them was working in the 'disabled orphanage'. She asked the group if they believe in Karma, and said that if you do, this placement provides that.

She then explained that working in this placement will make you cry, but that it will also make you happy. You are truly needed. I started to wonder if I was up for such a challenge, and decided to sign up.

I didn't sleep well the night before my first shift. I have been around people with disabilities, but really at an arms length. And many of the children in this home suffer from severe physical and mental conditions so I wondered if I could serve them without feeling sorry for them?

As we headed out for the home, I was anxious. I really did not know what to expect - of the children or my reaction. I actually prayed about it.

When we walked into the courtyard, we were greeted by girls and women of all ages. One girl quickly grabbed my hand and pulled me over to show me off to her friends. Several girls touched my hands and one asked me to sit down next to her while another sat on my lap. They were all happy and chatty, like any other group of girls, but each had some physical or mental condition that had caused her family to reject her.

Before we began our program, we were asked to check in the volunteer room and read the rules for volunteers. The list is lengthy - nothing out of the ordinary - but it does specifically lay out that the orphanage is a completely independent organization, not part of the Catholic Church. It relies strictly on donations for operations, but it asks that you not make donations in kind without talking to the sisters about their needs. In other words, don't assume that they need something in particular based on a limited interaction with the place.

At 8:45, we were called into meditation and prayer with all the staff. There are other long-term volunteers - Sri Lankan women who spend every day there - along with other sisters and three young women from France who were finishing a shift.

The lead sister, Sister Agnes, led a mostly meditative session but then spoke about how precious each of us are in God's eyes, and how precious these children are. And that each of us is special and we need to appreciate that fact. It was really quite lovely.

She then said to remember that these children are "abandoned, neglected, rejected and loved". Our job was to make sure that all the people in the home know that last one.

Sister Agnes then explained that on the previous day, they had had a celebration of Mother Teresa's Canonization announcement and that we should view the tributes that had been made by the children and the community. There was a story about Mother Teresa's life which spelled out how she got from Eastern Europe to India.

We then went into the babies' area. This is where I had to take a step back and realize how significant of an undertaking this orphanage has embraced. There were 30 or so beds, a few of which had babies lying down or sitting up in awkward positions. There were other littles ones running around, but the place had an order to it that is hard to explain.  It was not particularly loud. One of the sisters asked me to feed a particular little girl. 

Her name is D - I want to put this in here as I do not want to refer to as "the girl" but I cannot remember the rest of her name but will look at it again. D is probably less than 2, but I could be completely wrong as it is difficult to tell the ages of any of the residents. I started to try to feed her the rather large (in my opinion) portion of rice and veggies provided, but it was hard to do with her sitting in her crib.  Her legs don't full straighten so she sits on them, and she cannot hold her head up so this was really an awkward position from which to feed her.  I was concerned about picking her up but decided that I could not feed her in this position. 

I lifted her up and quickly realized that she was heavier than I imagined. Her legs and arms are so thin - it's really hard to describe -but I think it is because she is so limp. I found a chair and proceeded to feed her.  When I could finally see her face, she smiled at me. A really sweet, genuine smile. I started to cry and she started to cry.  So I had to stop.

I did a truly awful job of feeding her. She just didn't want to eat! I know - I am supposed to be the adult but I couldn't force her to open her mouth. She ate some of the yogurt, and almost nothing else.  I failed on that account!

But she seemed to enjoy me holding her so I cuddled her on my chest and scratched her back. I quickly found that she was scratching my back. I was in love!

Sister asked us to make sure to spend time with a many of the children so as no one would get jealous. I found a fairly comfortable seat for D and went to find another child. That part was easy. All the children wanted to be picked up and carried or to sit next to you while you rub their arms. 

The children here have a variety of disabilities. There are children with Down Syndrome, some with cerebral palsy, some with missing limbs, some with the inability to sit up. 

One girl walks along the walls and stops periodically to bang her head against the wall until she is stopped. One girl sits on her bottom with her legs curled up underneath and scoots around the place. She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards so I sat next to her for a while.

There is a separate area within the baby area for the ones who are really sick. These babies are fed by feeding tube and it appears that they don't often leave their cribs. I don't state this as a criticism. The sisters and long-term volunteers never take a break!

Outside of the crib area, I watch the older girls and women. If you are unwanted as a baby, you are unwanted as you get older. That area was actually quite peaceful to me. I could go and sit next to a woman for awhile and she would hold my hand and show me her bracelets. It felt like these ladies just wanted some human companionship. 

I returned to the home today and was greeted with the same smiles and affection as the day before. We went to meditation with Sister Agnes and she talked about "True Love" - being able to accept yourself exactly as you are. Another great message.

We ended with Sister sharing an update about a long-term (six years) volunteer who is now battling cancer. She is blind but she shows up everyday to work at the home. She had had a lump in her breast for a while, but had ignored it since it did not hurt. She only went to the hospital when she had trouble breathing. The cancer had spread from her breast to her lungs and is now in her pelvis. 

Sister said that it is good that this woman is blind so that she cannot see what is going on around her at the hospital.  When she first arrived, they could not get her a bed so she sat on a chair. She now has a bed, which she shares with two other people! 

With that story, she sent us off to our day. We would begin with the girls in the classroom. 

Chitra, a beautiful woman of indeterminate age (old enough to have gray hair) remembered me from the day before.  She even remembered my name! Took my hand and placed me in a chair beside her. We spent the next hour drawing pictures and coloring. It was a joy for me!

When school finished, we headed back into the nursery. It was more chaotic today than yesterday but maybe that is my imagination. One little girl immediately rushed to me and jumped up on me for a pick up. I realized she had a wet diaper (they use these cloth things - not really diapers; more like diaper liner that they put in their shorts) so I put her down and went to look for clean clothes. 

The changing area was piled with dirty and clean clothes being sorted for laundry and folding. I found what I needed and went to take care of my little friend. She had already moved on to other things and really had no interest in a clean diaper. But the adult won in this case!

A little girl who tends to sit with her knees pulled up into her armpits came to get my hand. She took me over to a table to sit down next to her. Then she took my arm, put it over her shoulder, and laid her head it my lap. We stayed that way until lunch. 

We help feed the children. One of the older volunteers showed me that it is much easier to get the kids to eat if you take the rice-veggie mix and ball it up in your hands and put it in their mouths that way. It goes against all that I believe but I followed her lead and got D to eat today. It still creeps me out, but that's really how most Sri Lankans eat. No utensils required...

We put the children to bed for naps and went to have our lunch and a break. The food doesn't vary much here - curried rice and some vegetable or dough stuffed with veggies and then fried. It's actually quite tasty but not at all healthy. 

After lunch, we went downstairs for more playtime. The girl who had taken my hand before lunch greeted us by taking off her pants and peeing on the table. None of the staff seemed surprised. 

I made a point to go the beds of each of the children who don't seem to get out of bed to spend some time talking to them and rubbing their arms. One or two gave me a smile. 

Our volunteer day ended with all of us in the courtyard to have prayers, cake, and then dancing. An older woman took my hand and showed me the seat beside her. She showed me her bracelets and we held hands as the performance took place. 

I wanted to share this experience with you as I am really enjoying being here! I have always admired the work that my sister does but I never fully appreciated how challenging it can be to work with people who are"differently-abled" (as Mother Teresa called it). The children and girls at this home are well cared for and happy, but they have a lot going on. There appear to be NO professional staff! I am confident that they bring in doctors and nurses as needed, but the volunteers and sisters take care of everything! 

I am happy to report that they do not allow anyone to take photographs inside. The last thing you would want is someone posting selfies on FB of any of the children! They do allow tourists to come visit and tour the facility.  Since this home operates solely on donations, this is essential for fundraising.