Upon arrival we were greeted with the noisy chatter and the laughter of young children. All around us there was a flurry of activity with several adults bustling about and girls and boys whizzing past, some on their feet, some in wheelchairs and one boy on his hands. We were standing inside MarcSri Sarana Seva, home for disabled orphans and the destitute.
Undisturbed by all the activity around her sat a serene looking elderly lady with a kind face and a gentle manner. Ms. Rita Perera who founded MarcSri 30 years ago, in 1983 said she never planned her home to be turned into a shelter for orphans and the homeless.
“After my husband passed away in 1982, I was living in this house by myself,” she reminisced. “One day a man with a broken back appeared at my doorstep. He could not walk and had no place to go. Ever since then this place has become a home for the elderly, the sick and disabled orphans.”
She added that in the early days she made huts with coconut branches to house those whom came to her and took care of them by herself. Then gradually a few humanitarians like herself started helping out at the shelter. Eventually, those who were taken care of by Rita grew up to volunteer at MarcSri. Now there are about 40 volunteers, most of whom had lived at MarcSri for 15-20 years and had grown up under the loving care of Rita.
Since that fateful day in 1983, Rita has never taken a break from her humanitarian efforts. She now runs 11 shelters in various locations including Paiyagala, Beruwela and Wadduwa. Father Julian Tissera helps Rita with efforts while Ms. Irangani is her second-in-command at MarcSri.
“MarcSri was started without a plan. I never imagined myself being a mother to so many children,” she said. “Now we are all a family and this a place filled with love and kindness.”
Dulanjali, the oldest child at the home, was brought to MarcSri 17 years ago, when she was only a few days old. Her devastated parents were heartbroken when Dulanjali was born with no arms and deformed legs. In the absence of parents, Ms. Rita was a loving mother to Dulanjali. Just like all the other children at MarcSri, Dulanjali calls Rita “mother.”
“Dulanjali was the first to be brought to MarcSri as a baby,” Rita said. “At the time this was an elder’s home. There were no children. But when Dulanjali’s distraught father brought her here, I didn’t have the heart to turn him and his child away. Ever since that day Dulanajali has been here.”
Currently Dulanjali is the star at MarcSri. This is because of her great performance at the Ordinary Level exams last year. Gaining 6 As, a B and 2 Cs is no small feat, especially since Dulanajali did not go for any tuition classes. However, gaining these results by writing for the exam with her feet is an incredible achievement.
It was evident that Rita was proud of Dulanajali’s achievement as any mother would be.
“I always knew Duanjali had a good brain. She has always been very interested in her school work. She always works so hard at her studies,” Rita claimed.
However, the path which led to her achievement has been rough with many obstacles along the way. It has required an immense degree of strength, courage and faith.
“Dulanjali was a very sick baby. At first we didn’t even think she would live,” Rita said. “Because of her condition we couldn’t even send her to school even. When she finally started going to school she was almost eight years old. However, I taught her at home and she displayed her intelligence and talents from a young age. She even taught herself to write with her foot. It was obvious that she was a very wise child.”
Since she was seven years old, Dulanjali has attended the Katutkurunda Roman Catholic College. Currently she is pursuing her Advanced Level studies there in the Commerce stream.
Speaking about her future dreams Dulanjali said she wanted to become a graphic designer. Right now she is following a course in graphic designing and hopes to continue her studies in this field when she leaves school.
“I have always been interested in the IT field, especially in animations and graphics,” Dulanajali said with an enthusiastic smile. “Web browsing is my hobby. I also like to read books. Recently I finished reading the entire Sherlock Holmes series.”
Dulanajali said she was forever grateful that she was brought up at MarcSri. Even though her biological parents came back to her life a few years ago and visited her sometimes, she considers Rita to be her real mother.
“I am glad that I was brought here. MarcSri is the perfect place for someone like me,” Dulanjali exclaimed. “This environment is better than a typical home environment. If I grew up in a regular house, I might have been cornered and kept away from society. But at MarcSri I interact with the world and I get exposed to society. I also receive unconditional love and care. I have never felt that this was not my home and I never want to leave.”
Apart from Dulanjali there are 7 other children at MarcSri, ranging between the ages of 16 and 2 years. They have all been rejected by their parents and were brought to MarcSri as babies. Two of the youngest children suffer from Down’s syndrome while the others exhibit physical deformities and disabilities.
Except for the two children with Down’s syndrome, everyone else attends Katukurunda Roman Catholic College. Five year old Shehan attends Holy Angle Convent in Gonapinuwala, a place built especially to educate children with Down’s syndrome. “It is certainly difficult to send them to school because they all have special needs and require individual attention,” Rita said. “We have to take their wheelchairs and several changes of clothes. Maneuvering the wheelchairs is sometimes very hard inside the school. However the principal, the teachers and the staff at the school have been extremely patient and understanding.”
She added that the children are often helped by their classmates and even though they come across difficult, uncomfortable situations, they face them bravely.
“It cannot be easy to go to school or even face life with their disabilities,” Rita said. “But these children overcome these challenges remarkably. They are happy and well-adjusted. Even though they might be handicapped physically, their mentality is very good.”
Mario is one example of a child who has made the best of what he has been given. Rita described 10 year old Mario as a “very interesting” child. Born with no legs, the agile way Mario moves on his hands is astounding.
According to Rita, Mario has a mid-eastern origin and was brought to MarcSri from a middle-eastern country. He had never seen his parents since.
Speaking about Mario’s compassion Rita said, “Mario loves animals, especially cats. If someone hurts any of the cats here, he gets very angry. Before he goes to bed, he wishes them a good night and draws the sign of the cross on their heads.”
The little animal-lover also has 18 hens. He is interested in agriculture and when asked what he would do when he grew up, his staunch answer was “farming.”
Rita proudly revealed another one of Mario’s passions. “Mario is a first-class cricketer. He watches international cricket and has an extensive knowledge about the sport,” she said.
It was evident from the stories of Dulanjali, Mario and the rest of the children at MarcSri that this environment allows children to lead a normal life. According to Rita the purpose of MarcSri is to provide love and care to those who need it the most and help them lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives despite their disabilities. She added that some of the children she has helped are grown up with jobs, are happily married have children of their own.
“I don’t want these children to grow up feeling lost and lonely,” Rita said earnestly. “I want them to have someone beside them. I encourage parents to accept their children as they are. And sometimes they are able to do that. But if they can’t, I don’t blame them. Instead I become a surrogate mother to these children who have been abandoned due to no fault of theirs. They become my own children.”
Even though Rita tries her best to fulfill the children’s needs, running such a shelter is costly. The expenses include the cost of food, clothing, medicine, wheelchairs, school fees, the cost of school supplies and the charges for extra courses and training programs. These costs can be a burden especially since MarcSri has no fixed income and it does not receive any aid from the government or any other organisation. MarcSri solely relies on donations by kind strangers.
However Rita has so far managed to fulfill the needs of children and is positive about the future of MarcSri as she has placed her faith in God. She is sure that MarcSri will be run according to God’s will. She has taught her children not to grieve over what they don’t have but to be happy with what they do have.
Rita’s attitude and philosophy about life is just as beautiful as her mission. She has made it her life goal to make these children’s lives worth living.
“We do not have much and we definitely don’t have many luxuries. We have what God intended for us to have and we make do with it. I try to give these children as much as they deserve. After all, they were born to this world with so much of suffering. It is our duty to keep them happy and make their lives as beautiful as possible.”
(Pix by Kithsiri de Mel)