Poets and authors have penned words on the innocence of childhood and the beauty of “life’s summer”—yet everyday we see countless innocents walking the streets destitute and alone or being abused by those who are either emotionally or economically unable to care for them. The SOS Children’s villages attempt to remedy this situation by providing real homes for orphaned or abandoned children.
Begun in 1981 the SOS Children’s villages are located at five locations across the island; Piliyandala, Nuwara Eliya, Galle, Anuradhapura and Moneragala. A new village is expected to open in Jaffna, by mid next year. “All basic arrangements have been made to build the village we have found the land and the architect is in the process of designing the place,” SOS Children’s Villages National Director Ananda B. Karunarathne explained. Earline Barthelot elaborated that temporary projects had been carried out in the north and east during the ceasefires and the post-war period. SOS children’s villages also took on projects to help unaccompanied minors from Menike Farm locate their parents or guardians and found other temporary care.
Ananda explained the function of the operation carried out in Sri Lanka. “SOS children’s villages provide total care for the children who have lost their parents as well as children who are at risk of losing their parental care. So we bring children who have no parents to our villages and provide them with everything they need to be productive citizens in society,” he said.
When the Daily Mirror visited the SOS Children’s village in Piliyandala project Director of Sponsorship Services and Information Technology and Communications Earline Barthelot explained the functions of the village and the employee’s attempts to provide the children with a stable upbringing. Having been with the village since its inception, Earline knows almost all the children by name, including the achievements of past students—she narrates these achievements with the persona of a proud mother. “Some of our children have been educated overseas and done very well in their examinations,” she says.
One of the grateful former occupants of the village is twenty five year old Pubudu De Silva. “I came here when I was three and there were only four homes here—at the time all this was a rubber plantation. I feel my life is what it is today because I came here,” he says. Pubudu is now a productive citizen of society and works at as a supervisor at a leading hotel chain; additionally he is also a licensed tour guide. His achievements as a tour guide are all the more impressive when Earline explains that he had struggled for a long time with a persistent stutter. “Despite this he has come a very long way in life. He overcame this hindrance,” she says. Pubudu believes that it is the love of his SOS mother that brought him to his present station in life. “I received a love that I don’t think I would have received anywhere else. It is as a result of this love that I am where I am today,” he says.
The concept of SOS villages ensures that they are actual homes for children and give them the all important feeling of belonging. “Our founder Hermann Gmeiner believed that the most important aspect of childhood is the feeling of belonging and that is what we give our children here,” Earline explains. Each SOS mother lives in a home and takes care of up to 10 children and performs the functions of any ordinary mother. This makes the village different from other orphanages—those who take care of the children are expected to be mothers not matrons or wardens of the children. “I have worked at other orphanages before, but it is different here. At SOS they practice motherhood; we are expected to love and care for the children like they are our own,” an SOS Aunt Kusum Buddarage explains.
The architects of the SOS children’s village concept have a stringent process for choosing their mothers, to ensure that they are proficient caregivers. “We generally employ those over the age of 30 and give them two years of training. Most often within those two years the mothers realize if they want to this to be their life. Those who come here don’t look at it as a job but as a passion,” Earline explains. Their services are appreciated in the long run even after their retire as mothers, they are housed in the retired mothers quarters, where their children come to visit them and family reunions happen every first Sunday of the month.
Manike Nilawala a SOS mother explains the experience of being recruited an employee and being transformed into a mother. “When I came here I had no idea what it actually entailed, but now I feel an indescribable amount of joy. I was trained for one and a half years and thereafter given a child of one year and a few months to care for. When I first held her I didn’t feel any love or a connection with her—I was so frightened that I felt like running home. She was so sickly she didn’t have any hair, she had sores all over her body and wasn’t even properly clothed,” she explains. Today that child is Manike’s pride and joy; having completed her Advanced Level Examination she is now employed.
She goes on to explain how motherhood took over her life and gave her a new purpose for existing. “Three months later I was given 10 children and six of them were under the age of two and a half. Four of them left to write their A/level exam today and I can’t imagine the pride I feel for my children,” she says. Pointing at one of her children Menike explains epiphany she had when her little girl received an award, two years in a row, at the school elocution competition. “I feel such an amount of pride that these are my children and that I played a part in getting them off the streets and promising them a good life,” she says
The SOS villages also have a youth centre for boys over the age of 14. “When boys come to that age they need a male influence in their lives and they need a different kind of attention, for this we have the youth centre,” Earline explains. The youth centre provides boys adolescent boys with the guidance and upbringing they need. “After their Advanced Levels we give them a vocational training at the Boralasgamuwa project—where they learn important skills of survival and are empowered to enter society. However our connection with them never wavers—sometimes we even pay for their weddings,” Director of the Youth Centre Lasantha Waligamage explained. In an attempt to motivate those at the youth centre scholarships are given to achieving students from the community. “Our children have received some comfort while growing up but there are others who have not been so fortunate, this scholarship programme helps motivate our children while providing an opportunity to those who have not received financial backing for their education,” Earline explains.
In order for this good work to continue the SOS children’s villages need a great amount of funding and unfortunately most of this funding comes from overseas. “We receive more than 95 per cent of our funds from international donors,” Ananda explains. Earline elucidates that as disasters around the world increase funding becomes more difficult to come by and therefore local funding is imperative for causes like SOS to survive. “The SOS villages in Korea and Pakistan are self-sufficient and it is important that we also get local funding, in order to take care of these children,” she says. “It is a responsibility of our society to do something, because we take care of these children and make them productive citizens in society,” Ananda added.
Earline explains that there is no longer an excuse for the cruelty of abandoning a child or killing it or even not giving birth to the baby because the SOS is an approachable alternative. “People don’t have an excuse anymore, we take care of these children so they should just come and hand them over to us without leaving them here and there,” Earline says.
Belonging is one of the greatest human needs; to know that we have a history and a family to which we belong and a place to call home. SOS children’s Villages fulfils this need for abandoned orphaned children around the country.