The children’s happy faces glow with pride on this special day. And they have good reason to be proud of their accomplishments, as ministers, priests, military personnel, and representatives of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries in Sri Lanka pour into their cleanly swept school yard in northern Sri Lanka for the annual sports meet.
The schoolyard has been transformed. Simple racetracks have been drawn on the ground — white dust on brown dirt. The school’s two “houses” have built beautiful huts in their house colors — green for “knowledge house,” red for “strength house.” One structure is shaped like a lotus flower, made of about 50, bright red, pink and purple saris. The other “hut” is a green helicopter, woven out of large palm leaves and reeds, flattened and cut. Both buildings demonstrate elaborate workmanship, one even boasting separate rooms for changing clothes. They are elaborate pieces of art.
The annual sports meet in Ganeshapuram is the most fun day in the entire school year. Thirty of the older children open the program by performing a traditional dance, then there is a short game for the smallest children. Later, the school’s two “houses” compete against one another in several races.
The children’s eyes shine during this day of celebration. But these are eyes that have seen terrible things. Eyes that have had to witness the violence and death as the 30-year civil war in northern Sri Lanka came to an end. Eyes that lived through the suffering in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, that watched the despair in their parents’ faces, and the long, hard and painful struggle to begin a new life. How can those eyes forget what they have seen?
They haven’t. But thanks to their steady ministry in child development centers (CDC) in the Ganeshapuram and nearby Chettikkulam schools, NCM Lanka has started a process of transformation that allows these children to be what they should be: children who can enjoy life as children, and face their future with hope.
Helping improve schools with compassion
When NCM Lanka started ministry in this area, the Ganeshapuram and Chettikkulam schools were in bad shape. Not only had most of the buildings been damaged during the civil war, so that the kids had to attend class in makeshift huts, but their educational level was so low that no child scored above 60 percent in examinations.
Today, Chettikkulam is the leading school in the division and Ganeshapuram is second. The children, in fact, have developed in such an astounding manner — both academically and in their behavior — that the zonal education director asked NCM Lanka if they would be willing to start a CDC in every school in the district.
This transformation has been accomplished in much the same way that NCM Lanka approaches every school where they start ministry: with homework help, nutritious snacks or meals, basic health care, social and spiritual lessons and a lot of loving care offered by the CDC teachers to children that, in their short lives, have seen so much misery. None of the teachers in other schools were able to manage these children who have suffered the trauma of war and abuse. In NCM Lanka’s CDCs, the children have teachers and mentors who take time to listen, offer advice, respond to each child and his or her problems individually.
And NCM Lanka has also helped in other practical ways. At the Chettikkulam school, which we visit after the sports meet in Ganeshapuram, the yard is dotted with small banana plants and teak trees and there’s a CDC garden along one building. An ash plantain tree displays a large bunch of fruit. Behind the school buildings, by the new school fence which was repaired with NCM Lanka’s assistance, there are dozens of larger banana plants and about 70 small coconut trees. The saplings were donated by NCM Lanka, and the income from the sale of the fruit pays for special events such as sports meets and will eventually help make the CDC financially self-supporting.
In the Chettikkulam and Ganeshapuram area, Nagalingam is NCM Lanka’s local project officer. A former truck driver, he joined NCM Lanka after he had offered them use of his trucks during the aid distribution in the IDP camp. When later on they asked him to join NCM as a field worker, he readily agreed, because “until my last breath I want to serve the people.” He is a highly trusted figure by school officials and the community as a whole.
In his job with NCM Lanka, Nagalingam’s main duty is to make sure the CDCs are running well. So he spends a lot of time at the CDCs. When he finds a child hasn’t come to school for two or three days, he visits their home to find out the reason and solve it whenever possible — often all it takes is to buy some school books for the kids.
“The most interesting part of my job is being with the children,” Nagalingam says. “My ultimate goal is to create an educated society. That’s why I make sure that the children somehow come to school in the morning and continue classes.”
Lives transformed — that is Nagalingam’s business, and this also is NCM Lanka’s business. And because of the tireless efforts of NCM workers like Nagalingam, and the trust that NCM Lanka has been able to establish in this region, people know this is the place to go for help.
Eyes that have seen terrible things do not forget what they have seen. But they can still recognize a brightening future, hope blossoming out of despair. And NCM Lanka continues to shine a light in dark places, transforming lives and giving children a reason to celebrate.