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Home Sweet Home – Building a Cozy House for Charlis

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Thinking about the approaching rainy season, Charlis and his wife couldn’t help but feel worried. Tzu Chi volunteers in Hambantota, Sri Lanka decided to gather the help of the rest of the villagers to build a house for the old couple. Three weeks of giving and with the contribution of almost 100 shifts of villagers building from scratch, the cozy house was finally completed!

The loving house was finally completed just before the rainy season; Charlis and his wife are not afraid of thunder or strong and heavy rain now.

More than 10 villagers gathered together to weave the coconut leaves for the rooftop.
The young and strong volunteers were in charge of going into the forest, choosing the wood and chopping the trees for the pillars of the house.
Wimalawathee from the Great Love Village was unable to walk, but she wanted to seize the opportunity to help by weaving the coconut leaves.
Everyone was working hard to lay foundation, erect the pillars and strengthen it with hemp ropes.
No one was scared of the heat and was busy loosening the soil to form the cohesive soil to fill up the walls.
Somawathi, a previous recipient of Tzu Chi had stopped receiving aid from Tzu Chi, and was happy to give as much as she can. She helped with delight to patch the mud into the bricks.
During the “opening ceremony”, Tzu Chi volunteers tied a red ribbon outside the door, the old couple untied it and walked into the new house together.
The old couple observed the old tradition by lighting a fire in the house to boil a pot of milk to signify peace and luck.
Under the witness of the Tzu Chi volunteers, the old couple planted a jackfruit seedling next to their new house.
At the “opening ceremony” of Charlis's house, Tzu Chi volunteer-staff Hansika thanked the volunteers and villagers with gratefulness.
The new house was built right behind the old small hut which Charlis and his wife used to stay.

H.T. Charlis’s small hut has never hosted so many visitors – there were about 15 Tzu Chi volunteers in the shack!

Charlis and his wife were rather uneasy with receiving their guests in their simple and narrow hut and that their ceiling was a bit low that one has to bend his back upon entering the house. The house was filled with smoke as the family had just cooked rice and ventilation in the house was appalling. Nevertheless, the volunteers disregarded the situation and were happily dragging weaved coconut leaves and wooden materials with them, ready to put up a brand new rooftop for the couple.

Charlis was standing aside looking at the shabbiness of the small hut and couldn’t help but heaved a sigh.

In time to care

In 2006, when Tzu Chi volunteers met 65-year-old Charlis, both of his legs were swollen and he was seated outside the small hut, staring into space. Charlis has a son and daughter. Initially, he and his wife were staying with their son, however due to misunderstanding they were not able to get along well with their daughter-in-law. The old couple had no choice but to hastily built a small hut behind their son’s house using mud and bricks, and stayed there ever since. The two relied on selling the little crops grown from their garden for a living but could hardly survive. They did not have much strength to continue cultivating the crop due to old age, and were forced to beg around the neighbourhood.

Charlis suffers from numbness on both his legs and the doctor had warned that he had to continue the medication although he does not stand a chance for cure. Every month, Charlis will walk to Badagiriya hospital, a government hospital, on crutches to collect his medication. Fortunately, the medication is at no cost.

Tzu Chi Hambantota was efficient in receiving the case and provided the couple 1000 rupees (about $12) for living expenses. Whenever the volunteers make a trip to provide daily necessities, they would take the opportunity to talk to the couple’s son and daughter-in-law, hoping that they would be filial and let the old couple have a safe shelter. However, they were always reluctant to talk much and albeit the daughter-in-law has agreed to provide water and electricity, they have not made any effort to bring the old couple back.

Unconditional love

The yearly rainy season was approaching; the plastic sheet rooftop of the small hut was almost dilapidated and could hardly shelter the old couple from the rain.

After the home visit in October, Tzu Chi volunteers decided to build a new rooftop for Charlis and his wife. But before they could weave the coconut leaves for the rooftop, the leaves had to be immersed in the lake for a day so that the leaves could be bendable and durable. Tzu Chi Hambantota's social work officer Hansika gathered her mother and sister, and assumed the task of soaking the coconut leaves.

Once the news spread out, not only Hansika's family, residents of the same village and even villagers from the Tzu Chi Hambantota Great Love Village came to help. On 9 November, more than 10 villagers under the leadership of Tzu Chi volunteers gathered at Hansika's house to weave the coconut leaves for the rooftop. From sunrise to sunset, everyone was too occupied to stop working.

Among them, Wimalawathee (“Wima”) from the Great Love Village was there. When Wima was young, she contracted a virus which made her lose her voice and the use of both her legs. She managed to recover after long-term therapy but unfortunately in the South Asian tsunami disaster in 2004, she lost both of her legs while trying to escape and has to rely on a wheelchair to move around.

Wima’s husband is an odd-job worker; he receives low wages and she hardly has the chance to step out to volunteer. Finally the opportunity came when she heard that Tzu Chi volunteers were changing a new rooftop for a poor couple - she knew she had to grab the opportunity to help a fellow villager. Although she cannot walk out of the Great Love Village, upon receiving the task of weaving the coconut leaves, she felt happy and blessed to be able to help.

Building from scratch

On 12 Nov, Tzu Chi volunteers and the villages arrived at the small hut of Charlis and his wife, even better, Charlis’s son and daughter came to help too.

The experienced volunteers realized that the mud walls were shaky and the doors and windows were loose. It seemed like the small hut needed more than a new rooftop! Hence the whole group felt that instead of repairing, they might as well build a new steady house for them!

After discussion and surveying the condition, the whole group decided to use mud and wood collected on the spot to build the house.

Mud hut has a long history especially in dry and hot Sri Lanka and is still common there. As compared to wooden brick house which needs more than 100 thousand rupees (about S$1200) to build, mud house seems to be more practical, especially the tolerance level for hot air is low, hence even when the weather is hot, it will still be cool.

The most important thing is: building the mud house is simple and only requires manual work and simple tools. What's more, the mud house would be built with love from the volunteers and villagers!

Team effort

After the new site had been graced with a blessing ceremony by a Buddhist monk, the building of the new house officially started!

The group went into the forest, chose the wood and started chopping trees; everyone was busy putting up the “pillars” for the new house. With teamwork, the whole group took just one day to complete the task. The next day, more than 10 villagers and volunteers gathered again at the construction site early in the morning. As they worked through the day, there was nothing but delight and joy on their faces.

Tzu Chi staff Udeni’s father-in-law, K. Siripala, is an expert in house construction. The group asked him for advice whenever they bump into problems; everyone was eager to learn the trade from the senior. Whenever there was a problem, they would help each other and strive to improve the situation.

“Hopefully the Charlis couple can live in a better environment,” Udeni wished.

Old Charlis was seen sitting quietly at the side looking at the crew who was busy building the foundation of his future house, positioning the pillars and strengthening them with hemp ropes, followed by stacking up the coconut leaves for the rooftop trying to build up the shape of a house. Unconsciously, the elderly started to smile.

The couple staying next door has always helped Charlis and his wife in whatever ways possible. They were also helpful to the building crew from the start of the construction and had even volunteered to take charge of the final door installation, which was kindly sponsored by Hansika’s uncle who works as a farmer.

Palms down to help

The most challenging task had finally arrived! After working for one week, the wood frame of the mud house was finally completed, now was the time to get the wall up.

The flooring had already been dried up. The volunteers and villagers were not afraid of the sun and were making utmost effort to loosen the soil and mixing with water to form the cohesive soil. From the soil to the site, the members perspired while trying to move the soil. At the new site, another group of builders was patiently trying to fill up the mud into the wooden planks. Everyone was busy trying to build a new house with four walls.

Even three-year-old Sanuli Methsahani had also found something to do! She is the only child of Udeni and had been following her parents to help. She was happy and was humming a song; each time the volunteers need a tool she would eagerly search for it and hand it to them! Besides the encouragement of the volunteers, the site was also filled with the voices of children.

Somawathi was at a corner working, and looked as if she couldn’t bear to put down the mud and stop working. Both Somawathi and her husband suffered from asthma and serious skin conditions respectively. Her family of three has to depend on her husband who works in a market. In 2006, Tzu Chi provided them with daily necessities and even helped them moved from their shabby hut to a better residence. This July, the whole family moved in to stay with Somawathi's niece. The family has since declined the offer from Tzu Chi and because of gratefulness and also of Charlis, Somawathi has again come in touch with Tzu Chi.

After a few days in the sun, the new mud house finally dried up. In order to fill up the cavities, the volunteers, standing two meters away from the house, threw handfuls of mud towards the wall with their strength. Lastly, they had to even up the mud so that the walls could be durable and strong!

Home sweet home

The old couple was getting more and more excited and was looking forward to the Day!

“Without you, we really don’t know how to continue living on,” said Charlis’s wife. Luckily the new house was finally completed before the rainy season.

On the early morning of 30 Nov, the old couple was brought to their new residence with the excited crowd who was anxious to start the “opening ceremony” of the house! There was a red ribbon tied to the door lock and under the clapping sound of the crowd, the old couple, hand in hand, pulled the ribbon and walked into the door. Whoa, Charlis realized that he did not need to bend his body to enter his house anymore.

Thanks to the volunteers and villagers, the house was spotless. There was a mud stove to cook rice and the house was even decorated with simple furniture. Someone made cakes, another gave a pot to celebrate the occasion; the whole house was filled with utter joy. The old couple observed the traditional culture, which was to light up the stove, cooked a pot of milk and then Charlis’s wife held a pot of water and walked into the house, which was to pray for peace and luck.

Under the witness of the Tzu Chi volunteers, the old couple planted a jackfruit seedling next to their house. The little tree would grow stronger each day, kids would grow older each day, and the care of the Tzu Chi volunteers would also persist as long as needed!

During the three weeks of construction, most of the people in the group had put their job aside and worked wholeheartedly in building the house! Everyone was looking upon Charlis and his wife as their own grandparents.

Hansika thereafter thanked the contribution of the entire building crew with gratefulness. “Building a house is not an easy job, but we did it! This house consists of our sincerity and love for Charlis and his wife!” Like a family, the whole group including young and old posed for a photo with the happy owners in front of the house. Everyone was smiling and the ones with the warmest smiles were of course Charlis and his wife!

“We do not have to worry anymore, be it strong wind or heavy rain, we will live happily.” Charlis smiled with his eyes turning red. “I must have done some good deeds in my past life to deserve such warm help from so many people. I have no words to describe my happiness, I’m grateful to each one of you!”

Indeed. At the time when help is needed, a little bit of love can create great comfort for the needy. The Tzu Chi volunteers came to realize that maybe it was not about building houses for the villagers but they also need to look into the spiritual needs of the villagers.

Because of compassion, a house was built; because of wisdom, a bond was formed. Lastly, the Tzu Chi volunteers still have a little wish; that is to use their love to build a better bond between Charlis and his daughter-in-law, so that his world would shine with virtue and be filled with filial piety.

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