Two young girls and the transformational power of CERI’s Food Security Program In 2009 the Batticaloa District of Sri Lanka, home to the CERI office and the focus of the CERI programs, finally witnessed the end of the devastating 30-year civil war that decimated the region and its people. In Batticaloa, the fourth most impoverished district in Sri Lanka, 19.4% of its inhabitants live at or below the poverty line — in U.S. dollars, equal to $25.50 per month. According to UNICEF, nearly one of every five children in Sri Lanka is born with low birth weight and approximately 29% of children under five years old are considered underweight. To address this epidemic, Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) launched the Food Security Program (FSP). In 2016, CERI Sri Lanka implemented the Food Security Program in Parathy Kiramam, Kiran Division, one of the poorest areas in Batticaloa, and the sixth village to be touched by the program since its inception. CERI’s initial goal of serving a group of 12 to 15 children quickly changed, however, when 34 underweight children showed up to the program. Two of these young children were Kugasaruthy, age 7, and Satheeska, age 5, both weighing 12 kg (27 pounds). As a result of the ravages of civil war, the siblings’ father became disabled. While hiding in a bomb shelter during a shooting, he was attacked by an elephant. As he ran to seek safety, he was shot three times. Barely alive, he was rescued and taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Unfortunately, during surgery, a medical mistake resulted in a severed nerve, rendering the young father’s left arm useless. He would be unable to work to provide for his family.
Kugasaruthy’s and Satheeska’s mother, Jeyanthini, 27, also suffered in the aftermath of these tragedies. The couple experienced feelings of inferiority due to their extreme poverty, causing them to withdraw from the outside world. Jeyanthini disallowed her girls to play with the other children in the village, kept them from attending school and confined the children to their small home. In spring 2016, Jeyanthini and her family were selected to participate in CERI’s Food Security Program, an opportunity she would have initially declined. After learning more about the services, however, and with the hope of helping her family in her heart, she accepted the offer. During the 12-day program, Jeyanthini learned to cook easy, healthy meals while her children participated in activities at the Children’s Club. After living a sheltered existence, Kugasaruthy and Satheeska made friends and learned how to play with other children. With each passing day in the program, their energy and enthusiasm increased. Before long, mom Jeyanthini started to flourish as well. She began to share stories about her life during the cooking sessions, talking excitedly with the other mothers about the positive differences she witnessed in her children’s behavior as a result of their participation in the program. “My girls are very happy to take part in the sessions,” she said. “They eat more while they are with other children than they eat at home when they’re alone. “I feel an invisible love that surrounds my children,” she added, “and peace and happiness cover our family daily as the girls return home after the session.” Today, as a result of the family’s interactions in the program, Jeyanthini began allowing the sisters to play with the other children in the village, as well as attend school. In the present, the FSP profoundly impacts the possibilities for the future!
Due to the family’s participation in the program, Kugasaruthy and Satheeska have both gained weight, expanded their social skills and boosted their self-esteem, and overall, enhanced their quality of life. In playing with their peers, the sisters experienced a critical turning point in their lives, as playing with others offered new experiences and opportunities for exploration, learning and development. New toys, new friends and organized games stimulated their growth and capacity, and CERI staff use game times to teach children how to play well together, model positive behavior, and show the love of God through respect for one another and good sportsmanship. The FSP’s focused interactions and practices helped Kugasaruthy and Satheeska grow physically and emotionally in a very visible and profound way. Although the girls remain underweight in comparison to their American counterparts, where the average weight of a seven-year old is 49 pounds, Kugasarthy is at 13.5 kg (approximately 30 lbs.) and little Satheeka at age 4 weighed in after the program at 12.5 kg, 27.5 pounds. Nevertheless, the sisters are on their way to healing, inside and out.
Sadly, in Sri Lanka, 53.2% of children aged 0-5 years are classified as underweight (calculated as weight-to-age ratio), and 71.6% of local households do not have adequate sanitation or water-seal facilities. Each year, local divisions of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health (MoH) in Batticaloa ask CERI to address the nutritional needs of local children through the Food Security Program by signing a formal partnership agreement that allows CERI to engage up to 10 new communities per year. The Food Security Program addresses the acute needs in these villages for healthy food, knowledge about proper nutrition, intentional cooking skills, and information on the importance of proper hygiene and sanitation. The FSP offers Sri Lankan moms the tools needed to confront child malnutrition and the common, yet life-threatening health conditions like diarrhea, intestinal worms, and infections. While Kugasaruthy’s and Satheeska’s story began as a family depressed and isolated, thanks to their mother’s willingness to participate in the FSP, the family’s narrative is alive with hope, health and happiness. Bonita Nirmala Samuel, the CERI Sri Lanka Interim National Program Director describes her team’s feelings about the Food Security Program implementation in Parathy Kiramam. “We thank God for this wonderful opportunity to serve others,” she says, “and to have successfully reached the families most in need.” Through the FSP, CERI hopes to reach even more families like Kugasaruthy’s and Satheeka’s, and one day, see Sri Lanka rise above poverty and despair through the power of God’s love. Together, with open, loving hearts and a mission to nourish the body and the spirit, CERI staff and the Sri Lankan people can transform and rebuild their families and communities.