Foursquare Sri Lanka Projects, Communications and Media Coordinator Blessie Keegel describes them as “differently-abled” children, and there are hundreds of thousands of them in Sri Lanka. They are victims of neglect and abuse, often in their own homes and at the hand of their own families.
It’s not that families set out to hurt these kids; it’s that they are viewed by many as a curse to their families and, therefore, deserve to be treated like animals. Some families are so despondent over what to do with these children that they simply lock them in a room or chain them to posts while the parents go to work.
The disabilities range from impaired hearing to partial blindness or the absence of a limb. Many have emotional or mental challenges, sometimes caused by trauma or sexual abuse. Others have Down syndrome or other genetic disorders.
Without help, most disabled people in Sri Lanka end up begging for food on the street, and many die prematurely due to lack of care and proper nutrition.
“These unfortunate children need to be loved,” asserts Foursquare Sri Lanka National Leader Leslie Keegel. “I believe Jesus had children with special needs in His mind when He asked His disciples not to obstruct children from coming to Him.”
This conviction led to the establishment of Refuge School in Vavuniya, a town in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Leslie is convinced that Refuge School can bring healing to the lives of children and their families.
“In an atmosphere of love and care,” he tells Foursquare.org, “they will be healed of their emotional traumas and will be able to take care of their own daily needs.”
Refuge School is the first of its kind in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka and has become a model for what Leslie hopes will eventually serve families in each of the 25 Foursquare districts throughout the country.
“We are personally witnessing drastic improvements in these helpless children,” he affirms regarding the school’s ministry. “They are able to do things they were unable to do on their own before.”
Eleven-year-old Priyadaharshan was refused admission to other schools, because he was considered a nuisance to the neighborhood and unable to care for himself. Through tears of joy, his father told Sri Lanka General Supervisor George Niranjan that he no longer chains his son to a post, because the boy knows how to behave after being properly trained at Refuge School.
The family of 9-year-old Leon had hoped to escape the civil war in Sri Lanka and move to Germany. Their move was prohibited because of Leon’s mental illness. He couldn’t stand or walk independently and could not recognize other people. Doctors suggested radical treatment, but the family had given up hope and did not follow the doctor’s advice. Then they took him to Refuge School.
Teachers at the school did what the doctor had suggested. And for six months, they prayed and offered encouragement as Leon built physical strength and mental acuity. His parents were amazed when he began to stand and walk on his own and to identify people.
Leon’s family regained hope and learned how to properly care for him. They were able to move to Germany and to the promise of a better life, in part because of the treatment and the prayer offered by teachers at the school.
Tackling the Problem
The Sunday Observer, a newspaper in Sri Lanka, reported on March 1, 2009, that 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s children have special needs, and 2 percent have severe needs. Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Director of Special Education H.P.N. Lakshman said that some children simply needed attention “to improve their hearing … but principals of schools had a prejudice in admitting them.”
Blessie Keegel says that treatment for special needs children is often far away and too expensive. Medical resources are depleted, and hospitals have been overrun treating victims of a nearly 30-year-long civil war that has ravaged the nation.
Seven years ago, a medical team from The Church On The Way in Van Nuys, Calif., visited the Northern Province town of Vavuniya. Norma Johnson, one of the team members, pressed Foursquare Sri Lanka General Supervisor George Niranjan to do something for these children. He took up the challenge and began to pray. The Sri Lanka national church board approved a plan born out of George’s diligent prayer.
Sister Premila Pilavendranathan, a Foursquare pastor’s wife, joined Sailajah Ravichandren, another female pastor, and together they established Refuge School on July 1, 2007.
Ministries such as Refuge School are now an integral part of the national vision of Foursquare Sri Lanka. Blessie says they already have plans to start two more schools, one of which will be in the Southern Province.
“Refuge School is just one part of the range of projects Foursquare Sri Lanka is developing to reach the nation by showing God’s love to His people at a time when they need it the most,” she explains. “We are continuing to seek support to provide our teachers with adequate training and material to help these children develop physically, mentally and emotionally, as well as in their knowledge of Christ.”
How They Do It
Teachers at the school help the children develop physical coordination and train them to take care of their personal needs. They teach them to identify words, pictures, objects, shapes and colors. Students are taught to draw and write, pray, sing and dance, and to express their creativity through art. Children also receive a nutritious meal while at school.
Blessie says teachers visit the parents of the children to educate them, so they can successfully raise a child with special needs. They train them to be patient and understanding of the needs of their children, as well as how to take care of them and maintain hope.
“The parents and families of these children,” she affirms, “are seeing great results in their development and cannot deny the little miracles happening in front of their eyes.”
The grandfather of a 9-year-old girl named Suyanthini took over raising her when her parents gave up. He is overjoyed about her progress at the school.
During a recent Hindu temple festival, Suyanthini was invited to sing on a public stage. When she took the microphone, she sang, “Jesus is so good to me.” Festival organizers were shocked and tried to stop her from singing. She held tightly to the microphone and ran all over the stage until she was finished singing about the goodness of God in her life.
Children at Refuge School are slowly bringing their families to the Lord as their behavior improves. Staff and volunteers at the school are born again Christians, and the local Foursquare pastor is actively involved. He and his family minister to the families of these children and attend to their physical, emotional, spiritual and, sometimes, financial needs.
Blessie says it’s the love of Christ that really makes the difference for these kids and for their families. Teachers, she says, give them the “extra patience and care they need to thrive in this environment, something most of these children have not felt in their lives.”
By: Rod Light, an ordained Foursquare minister and educator in Los Angeles