Founded in the British Colonial Period on 13 Mar 1888, Victoria Home for Incurables is situated at Rajagiriya, a suburb five minutes away from Colombo by car. The facility comprises 14 wards with 55 staff caring for its 173 residents. According to the Home's director, Mr Don Kingsley Thewarapperuma, similar facilities are scarce in Sri Lanka and there are currently up to 300 people waiting to be admitted to the Home.
Residents’ medical conditions range from those who still possess slight walking ability (with wheelchair) to seriously handicapped and forced to be bedridden. In order to facilitate care, the beds were designed with a hole in the middle of the bedplate and a small channel underneath for excrement collection. Even so, the Home's hygienic condition has remained quite well with no repugnant odour.
Local Tzu Chi volunteers have made it a custom to visit the Home on Poya Day since January 2011. Poya or Poya Day is the name given to a Buddhist public holiday in Sri Lanka which falls upon every full moon. Buddhists in the country would observe the day by chanting in and giving offerings to temples and monasteries.
According to the volunteer leader, Arosha, he and his team would give the residents haircut, shaving, and tidy up their personal closets on this day. "Sometimes what they're longing is simply a heart-to-heart conversation to tell us what's on their mind and what they feel.
Listening is an important part of in volunteering. We can tell the residents are always anticipating our visit and are very grateful to see us every month," said the Tzu Chi volunteer.
13 Mar 2011 marked the 123rd anniversary of the Home. Although there was no plan of any celebration by the Home, 17 Tzu Chi volunteers happily embarked to keep their "Poya date" with the residents.
Heartfelt dedication to the suffering
During the visit volunteers would meet and greet the residents in each ward upon arrival. Kumara, a volunteer, was engaging in a chat with a resident while giving him a head shave. When the shaving was done, the resident touched his bald head and gave a satisfied smile to Kumara's "skillful service". He even asked for a group photo with everyone to remember his new look.
"I didn't know anything about hairdressing previously," said Kumara, who's a friend of Arosha, the volunteer leader. "But after being here for a number of times, I feel that I really enjoy doing it and I always do it with enthusiasm," said the young entrepreneur who shifted his kids wear factory from Kandy, a hilly city in central Sri Lanka, to Colombo so that he could devote more time to Tzu Chi's work.
In one of the bathrooms, two young men were seen crouching and washing clothes on the floor. Priyantha, a member of Sri Lanka's Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), brought his friend, Yashantha, to volunteer that day.
As the Home does not provide laundry service, most residents who're mobile would take care of their own chores; those who're less mobile would sometimes dispose of their garments as it gets dirty; while those who're not willing to throw away their clothes will most often accept the volunteers' offer to help them wash and dry their garments.
"My washing machine do most of my laundry at home but I'm happy I'm able to help our residents here with my two hands," said Yashantha, who decided to sign up as a Tzu Chi donating member and to volunteer regularly at the Home with the Tzu Chi team. The young man also agreed to attend an upcoming volunteer get-together to know more about Tzu Chi.
In another bathroom, Arosha was demonstrating to new volunteers on how to bathe the residents. He reminded them of the things to note, for example, to observe the reaction of the residents while bathing them, and to wash their clothes afterwards. He also advised the volunteers to only chat with the residents after they're done with the tasks, and to help the residents to tidy up their personal closets or change batteries for their electrical appliances.
Lunch time at the Home is one of the best times for volunteer-resident interaction. The volunteers will mix the dish with the rice with their fingers and feed the residents with their thumb.
"We treat the residents like our siblings or parents. That's why we feed the residents with our hands. This is our eating custom in Sri Lanka. If we use spoons or gloves, they will probably think we see them as filthy persons," said Arosha, who also brought his wife, daughter, and mother to serve the residents.
The residents' ample gratitude was shown through their facial expression as they smiled widely back at the volunteers. Kumara, who's feeding a resident, explained that the reason why he chose to help at the dining place is because the Home is understaffed and he hoped to help cut down the waiting time by helping to feed the residents.
"Their happiness is our happiness"
Outside the female ward, a wheelchair-bound resident seemed to be elated as volunteers surrounded her and held her hands while chatting with her.
Chintha was born with congenital defect in both legs and was admitted to the Home by her parents when she was 18. Since then, her life began revolving around getting up, eating, dazing, and sleeping. Day after day and year after year she lived in this enclosed world, not knowing her own age and how long has she been there. But the resident is quite independent. She would bathe and groom herself everyday. And she always anticipates Tzu Chi volunteers' arrival on Poya Day.
Chintha has a thick, black hair and could not bear to have it cut too short. Arosha's wife, Victoria, thus carefully trimmed her hair tips to maintain her hairstyle. A brimming Chintha then took Tzu Chi staff, Dimuthu, by her hand, and called out to Victoria to feed her lunch.
After feeding the childlike Chintha, Victoria brought her daughter, Myisha, to visit a senior resident at the male ward. The half-paralyzed resident has been residing in the Home for 12 years since his wife passed away in 1999. All of his three children are living in Canada, so he always looks forward to Tzu Chi volunteers to come visit him, especially the little Myisha. The little girl would hold his hands as she talks to him, while the senior would look at the child with much joy and affection.
The volunteers' presence in the Home is like a dash of warmth through the residents' confined world. Their predicament is overcome with courage and the prevailing atmosphere of camaraderie eases their pain of mind.
And some residents do pride themselves as they use their talent to produce simple handicrafts that could earn them money and a sense of purpose.
The 55-year-old Gurawardana and 63-year-old Sugathpala who have their beds facing opposite to each one another, share similar fate as they are both single and paralyzed due to accidents, and their relatives rarely visit them.
Gurawardana, who used to be a tailor, has an electric sewing machine attached on his bed. He would spend his day sewing soft toys which he sells at 150 rupees each (about S$1.70). Sometimes, there would be sunny days where vendors would come purchase his masterpiece in bulk. During lunch time, the zealous resident would help to feed his other ward mates.
Sugathpala, on the other hand, would dye the recycled droppers red and make them into small fish-shaped charms or beaded bracelets for sale. When there're resident who passed away, said Sugathpala, the residents would often take out their earning to fund the funeral expenses. The Victoria Home for Incurables community is a living proof that disability is never an obstacle to a kind heart that has no boundaries.
Mr Don Kingsley Thewarapperuma has been serving as the director of the Home for 20 years since he retired from his public servant post. He acknowledged the volunteers' effort in caring for and comforting the residents: "Your help in feeding and bathing our residents is a great help to our staff as they try their best to take care of the residents' needs. We're really thankful for that."
Although the government provides annual grant to the Home, the money is only sufficient to meet part of its expenses and the Home often has to depend on donations from the generous public. "Tzu Chi is the first charity organization to offer resident care to us," said Mr Kingsley.
After the residents finished their lunch, the volunteers decided to call it a day to their half-day service and head to a nearby park to have lunch. As they share their thoughts under the banyan tree shade, Sister Lim Chwee Lian, who came to Sri Lanka ahead of the mid-March Bandaragama Tzu Chi Free Clinic, encouraged them to write down their feeling and heartwarming encounter experienced during the Home volunteering. "We could make them into posters and incorporate them in our news to inspire more people to join us," added Sister Lim.
Before the volunteers say goodbye to one another, Arosha concluded enthusiastically: "I'm sure we look forward to this day every month and the residents also look forward to our arrival. We can always do something for these folks by spending our little time. This is a good way to accumulate merits. Their happiness is our happiness, and this is what we learned from Tzu Chi."