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From Fellow Villagers and Tzu Chi Volunteers, with Love

K. Shanti (Shanti) is a mother of three living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her house was so dilapidated and run down that it was not fit for habitation. Volunteers in Colombo paid for the building materials while her neighbours and construction workers contributed their labour, all but to build a sturdy new house for Shanti and her family.


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Colombo care recipient, Shanti and her family's only shelter—a shabby house with wooden planks as walls and a thin sheet of zinc as roof. (Photo by Victoria)

“Though I come from a poor family myself, I was still stunned by what I saw when I first visited Shanti at her shabby house. The bed that the whole family slept in was in such a bad condition that it didn’t resemble a bed at all.” Volunteer Arosha felt sorry for Shanti and her family as he recalled his first encounter with them.

“Upon entering the house, one could see all the holes in the roof where sunlight shone through. It's not difficult to imagine what would happen when it rain. It's just hard to believe how could one live in such condition?”

Arosha, who hails from Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, got to know Tzu Chi at the third free clinic conducted by Tzu Chi Singapore in August 2010. He found his calling in life there and then, and has been participating in home visits in the vicinity of the local Tzu Chi office with a group of volunteer since. It was a resident who lives nearby who brought Shanti’s plight to their attention.

Rain seeped through poorly maintained roof

The petite and agile Shanti is 36 years old this year and has three school-going children. As both her husband and she didn’t receive any education, her husband, K.V.Harison Danny, could only work as an odd job worker and earns a meager income to support the family. They could not find a place to live in after they had got married, so they built a makeshift home with a few planks as walls and a thin zinc sheet as the roof.

With no maintenance work rendered, the wooden walls started to rot and deform with time; the zinc roof also began rusting and cracking. To prevent rainwater from seeping through, Shanti and her husband covered the roof with a plastic sheet. The plastic sheet too started to tear with time and couldn’t stop the searing sunlight and relentless rain from getting into the house.

The only furniture in the household were an old bed and two plastic chairs. The children would just cover the cracked ground with a plastic sheet and sleep on it. But that didn't make it any comfortable – the ground was damp and uneven.

During rainy days, the roof leaked very seriously and everywhere was wet in the house. In such times, Shanti would take her children to stay with her sister, squeezing into two rooms with 10 other relatives, while her husband would rest in a spot of the house where the rain couldn’t reach him.

“It was very tough for us,” Shanti lamented.

It was Shanti’s neighbour, Sarath, who referred her situation to Tzu Chi after learning about her predicament. On 26 Jan 2011, Tzu Chi volunteers visited Shanti for the first time. They felt sorry for her and after some deliberation, they decided to help her repair her house.

A brick house taking shape

“Originally we wanted to repair their house with woods. Later, we learnt that residents nearby, volunteers and friends all wanted to chip in with money and labour, so we changed our mind and decided to tore down their old house and build a brick house for them,” Arosha explained.

The goodwill continued to spread in the village – the construction workers did the work free of charge while Shanti's neighbours, fellow villagers and the Tzu Chi volunteers came help with the home building. Brick after brick, the walls of the house grew inch by inch and with the roof slowly put in place, the house started to take shape. Shanti’s confidence in having a decent house too grew day by day.

In a short span of more than two months, to much anticipation, the new house came into being with the efforts of many. A simple and solemn house completion ceremony was also held on 22 Apr.

On that day, Brother David Liu, the CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, was present to cut the red ribbon tied on the door to symbolize the beginning of a new life for Shanti and her family, much to the applause of those who came to witness the joyous moment.

Following the local traditions, Shanti prepared milk, firewood and oil lamps to celebrate the day that brought much hope to her family. In Sri Lankan traditions, when a new house is ready for habitation, one has to boil milk in it. The boiling milk and burning fire symbolize prosperity, and the aroma of the milk ensures wealth, health and harmony for the household. On the other hand, the top of the oil lamp, which is molded in the form of a rooster, is set to face the east so that the family members will gain enlightenment and enjoy good luck just like a rising sun dispelling the darkness of night.

Shanti thus set the firewood on fire to heat up an earthen jar full of milk. Everyone held their breath to wait for the milk to boil, and all broke into wide smiles when the milk started to boil and its aroma flowed through the house. Brother Liu then lighted the oil lamp to signify the elimination of darkness with light and wisdom, wishing sincerely a new and bright future for the family.

Drops of water form a river

The transfer of house ownership was carried out very smoothly. After the family moved into their new home, local Tzu Chi volunteers continued to visit the family to extend care and support. When the volunteers dropped by on 28 Aug, Shanti was cooking curry in the kitchen and the house was full of the pleasant smell.

As it was a Sunday and the children didn’t have to attend school, they laid on the straw mat that Shanti had put on the floor, taking a good rest and reading their books. “This new house is so comfortable to live in, the cement floor is very flat and we won’t get wet from the rain,” Shanti’s children said contentedly.

Shanti was smiling cheerily when she served the volunteers soft drink. In the small living room, the family chatted happily with the volunteers about their daily lives.

Being able to lead a comfortable life now, Shanti is full of endless gratitude. “I am truly grateful to all that Tzu Chi has done for me; without Tzu Chi, my family and I wouldn’t have been able to live as a family under one roof.

"When it rained in the past, I had to take my children with me and put up at my sister’s house, it was very inconvenient. Now, we have a sturdy house to shelter us from bad weather and we don’t have to part with each other. I am really grateful about it,” Shanti said happily.

Arosha, who has been taking care of Shanti and her family, was delighted to add that it was the first time that the Colombo Tzu Chi volunteers help build a house for a care recipient; it was also a first for him to witness how the lives of a family like Shanti's have greatly improved due to their efforts, and it makes him feel very much gratified and satisfied.

“Master Cheng Yen mentioned that drops of water form a river, small efforts from individuals can add up to become formidable force. In future, I will work harder to recruit more ‘bodhisattvas’ to help the poor and needy in Colombo,” Arosha said with much sincerity.

We hereby extend our well wishes to Shanti and her family, may they have a bright future and a better life; and may Tzu Chi’s reach grow stronger in Colombo to benefit the poor and needy through the recruitment of more volunteers.

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The roof was covered with a plastic sheet. During monsoon season, rainwater seeped through the worn-out roof, damaging both the roof and the floor. (Photo by Victoria)

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The only furniture in the house consisted of an old bed and two plastic chairs. The children would sleep on the cracked floor after covering it with plastic sheets. (Photo by Victoria)

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On 26 Jan 2011, volunteers visited Shanti for the first time. Feeling sorry for her, they decided to contribute building materials to repair her house. (Photo by Uditha)

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Construction work began on 11 Mar. Upon learning the plight of the family, the construction workers decided to build the house for Shanti free of charge. The goodwill spread and neighbours, fellow villagers and volunteers all chipped in to help. (Photo by Uditha)

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On 1 Apr, volunteers visited the construction site to understand the progress. They wished that Shanti and her family would have a decent home as soon as possible. (Photo by Victoria)

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22 Apr was the happiest day for Shanti and her family, the new house was completed within a mere two months. Tzu Chi volunteers organized a completion ceremony for them, wishing them a better future. (Photo by Uditha)

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CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore branch, Brother David Liu, cut the ribbon on the door of the new house, signifying the commencement of a new life for Shanti and her family. (Photo by Dulanjan)

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Boiling milk in new houses is a Sri Lankan tradition. Shanti (in pink dress) prepared a jar of fresh milk, firewood and an oil lamp, and invited volunteers to join her in the ritual. The boiling milk and burning fire symbolize prosperity, while the aroma of the milk is to bring wealth, harmony and health to the household. (Photo by Dulanjan)

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After the ceremony, Brother Kumara gave a new basin to Shanti as a gift to the family. (Photo by Victoria)

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On 28 Aug, volunteers visited Shanti again at her new house. Seen here is the family chitchatting with the volunteers in their living room. (Photo by Khor Chooi Kim)

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Bidding farewell to their muddy house of the past, Shanti and her family are very satisfied with their new house which is safe and sturdy. The children can now lie comfortably on the floor to take a good rest or read books, enjoying much improved living conditions for themselves. (Photo by Huang Bo-han)

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In the company of Tzu Chi volunteers, Shanti and her family are confident and hopeful of a better future. The smiles on their faces are the best gift to the volunteers. (Photo by Huang Bo-han)


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