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To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPwD), celebrated on December 3, we’re sharing the story of Mithusa, a young girl with cerebral palsy living in poverty in Sri Lanka. With the support of her mum and ChildFund Australia, Mithusa is receiving the care and tools she needs to reach her full potential.

When she was born, Mithusa, 13, showed no emotion. “She wouldn’t smile. She wouldn’t even turn over,” says her mum, Uthakumari. By her first birthday, Mithusa was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. In their small community in Northern Sri Lanka, professional support was hard to come by.

“People advised me to abandon her. At 18 months, one doctor told me, ‘Don’t bring her back here again. She’s a lost cause’,” recalls Uthakumari.

For the first seven years of her life, Mithusa only ever left home to attend health care visits. She was isolated in bed, without the ability to sit up. She drooled constantly, suffered epileptic seizures, hit those around her, wouldn’t talk and communicated very little otherwise with her family.

But Uthakumari refused to give up on her daughter.

One day a volunteer knocked on the door and invited Mithusa and her mum to attend a health clinic supported by ChildFund. This would be the beginning of a long journey out of isolation for Mithusa.

“People advised me to abandon her. At 18 months, one doctor told me, ‘Don’t bring her back here again. She’s a lost cause’.”

At the health clinic, Mithusa was evaluated and afterwards enrolled in ChildFund’s community-based Inclusive Development project. At just seven years old, health care workers were hopeful that Mithusa would, at minimum, be successful in keeping her cerebral palsy from progressing and further reducing Mithusa’s mobility. A care plan was established with physical therapists and Uthakumari was trained on how to perform daily physical therapy at home with her daughter. Mithusa also began attending speech therapy classes.

The first milestone was reached within a year. “I began stimulating her cheek muscles, and this stopped her from constantly salivating,” says Uthakumari. “This gave me hope that other issues could be improved, too.” With daily physical therapy, Mithusa began to sit up in a chair. She gradually began to communicate more and more non-verbally until she eventually started to mouth words.

Photo: Jake Lyell.

“I always saw improvements with every bit of effort I put in,” recalls Uthakumari. “Now I’d say she’s improved about 90%.”

Today, Mithusa recognises and interacts with the people around her. She’s talkative and bubbly and is beginning to manoeuvre her own wheelchair, which was provided to her by ChildFund. “She’s constantly smiling and has joy inside her. All of this was not there before, but I knew it would happen,” says Uthakumari.

ChildFund works with schools in Northern Sri Lanka to be more inclusive of children with disabilities. As a result of great awareness and funding, Mithusa’s local school hired a special education teacher for her and other children with disabilities in the area. ChildFund also provided teacher training, resources and equipment to the school.

Mithusa started attending school two years ago and now attends five days a week. She’s continuing to improve in her speech. She is drawing and recognising letters. Her behaviour has also improved. “She’s broken at least 20 pairs of glasses before, but this pair she’s had for over six months,” says Uthakumari, adding that Mithusa now recognises the need and value of her glasses and wants to protect them.

“She will definitely walk. I know, one day, she will get up out of that chair and walk.”

Recently, Mithusa and her mother were waiting by the roadside for a public bus to transport them to the physical therapy clinic. As often happens, the approaching driver and conductor realised that allowing Mithusa and her wheelchair to board would take too much time. They sped off without them to find customers who could board more quickly. Though this happens frequently, one thing had changed. This time, Mithusa questioned her reality. “Why won’t they let me ride the bus?” she asked her mum.

Today, Mithusa is working on her next milestone. She’s beginning to stand, albeit with the help of leg braces. “She will definitely walk,” states Uthakumari. “I know, one day, she will get up out of that chair and walk.”

Show your support this International Day of Persons with Disabilities and help more children and youth like Mithusa reach their full potential by donating a wheelchair, walker – or both! Your gift will be a source of freedom, independence, resilience and health. A wheelchair or walker can help a child get to school, be with their peers, and receive an education that opens them to greater opportunities in the future. Check out our Gifts for Good catalogue and donate today.

Find out more about IDPwD and how you can get involved here.

Rajitha grew up surrounded by natural beauty. The landscape in her community in rural Sri Lanka is lush and green, studded with pristine lakes, ornate Buddhist temples and mountains marbled with rose quartz.

Now she’s a 23-year-old college graduate with a good job, and these days the rich scenery of her inner world matches her outer one.

It wasn’t always that way. She’ll never forget the helplessness of being a child trying to survive the challenges of poverty.

“There were days when my mother broke one roti into five pieces,” says Rajitha. “She used to divide a 40-page notebook into sections because she didn’t have enough money to buy notebooks for all three of us.”

Even now, Rajitha remembers how that felt.

The challenges of poverty during Rajitha’s childhood

Like many children in developing areas, Rajitha is from a farming family which relies on crops for food. Every year, the family battled unpredictable weather that sometimes became disastrous.

If it didn’t rain enough – or it rained too much – they didn’t have anything to eat.

“Farming was the only source of income we had, and my parents struggled every year to obtain a harvest so that they would be able to feed me and my two sisters,” Rajitha says.

The family was hit by drought often. During one long dry spell, they had no water and had to walk a long way to collect it. Another time, their two-room mud house was damaged by the strong winds of a tropical storm.

“We didn’t see an electricity bulb in our house until 2004,” says Rajitha.

In the evening, she and her sisters would study by the light of a small oil lamp.

Their mom knew the value of education and encouraged them to focus on school, telling them it was the only way to a better life.

She was right. According to the Global Partnership for Education, poverty and education have a strong inverse relationship.

The more education someone has, the less likely they are to live in poverty. In fact, one extra year of school increases a person’s earnings by up to 10 percent.

Sponsorship changed everything

Rajitha’s story took an unexpected turn in 2003, when she got a sponsor through ChildFund, Ms. Sharla.

Several years later, Ms. Sharla had to end her sponsorship, so Rajitha got a new sponsor, Ms. Feng.

“Both of them were reasons for my life to take a new course,” Rajitha says. Child sponsorship connected her to all the material things she needed to be successful in school – like books, notebooks, backpacks and shoes.

She started to participate in academic programs that enriched her life, including English classes.

“I couldn’t even write my name in English [before]. But through the ChildFund programs, I learned English the proper way without having to pay a cent,” Rajitha says. “This was a huge relief for my family.”

Now that Rajitha’s education was taken care of, they had more money for food and other basic needs.

Knowing that someone – even someone so far away – cared about her well-being became a huge source of motivation for Rajitha.

“Because my sponsors chose me and because their support and encouragement were there for me, I felt the need to push myself further in my education,” she says.

After overcoming the obstacles of poverty, Rajitha gaves back to her community

Rajitha graduated from secondary school with honors, and then earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Peradeniya, the largest and oldest university in Sri Lanka.

Today, she works as a program officer for Abhimana Community Development Association, ChildFund’s local partner organisation that helped her as a child, at one of its offices in southern Sri Lanka.

Rajitha with her colleagues at Abhimana Community Development Association
Rajitha with her colleagues at Abhimana Community Development Association

She’s also studying for a diploma in Human Resources Management and taking accounting classes.

“My next wish is to reach the highest peak in my career and bring more comfort and happiness to my family,” Rajitha says.

“I also want to help a child who is struggling economically, the way I was struggling. Just as I was supported, I want to support another child to become educated.

“When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being educated and more stable in life, but I was afraid. There were too many obstacles, the main one being poverty.

“One of my life’s dreams is to see my two sponsors, who helped me reach success, and thank them from the bottom of my heart.

“Without them, I couldn’t have come such a long way.”

You can help a child like Rajitha

Today, thousands of children in Sri Lanka are struggling just like Rajitha was, smart and curious but losing hope in dreams that seem unattainable.

When you donate monthly through ChildFund, you support the education that will fuel those dreams and offer them access to the most reliable route out of poverty.

Learn more about the relationship between poverty and education – and how monthly donation makes a difference.