Help on the other side of the world

Eas­ton teen’s char­ity group de­liv­ers or­tho­pe­dic aids to Sri Lanka

Sunday Star - - FRONT PAGE - By CON­NIE CON­NOLLY cconnolly@ches­pub.com

EAS­TON — While most teens are soak­ing up the sun or earn­ing ex­tra cash dur­ing their sum­mer va­ca­tion, an Eas­ton High School ju­nior was hand­ing out mo­bil­ity de­vices to the poor halfway around the world.

She mod­estly de­flects the credit to her char­ity’s donors, but Natasha Pan­duwawala of Eas­ton was a hu­man­i­tar­ian rock star in Sri Lanka.

Natasha, who just earned her driver’s li­cense last month, re­cently re­turned from her par­ents’ na­tive coun­try, where she dis­trib­uted do­nated wheel­chairs, walk­ers and canes to help peo­ple with mo­bil­ity chal­lenges.

Natasha was barely 16 years old when she started her char­ity, Move­ment to Re­mem­ber: Col­lect­ing Or­tho­pe­dic Aids — Sri Lanka 2017, in Septem­ber 2016. Her goal was to col­lect 200 de­vices; and she ex­ceeded it, col­lect­ing 215.

She just got back from spend­ing a month cre­at­ing fond mem­o­ries, hang­ing out with cousins and en­joy­ing moun­tain vistas, but her fa­vorite mo­ment was giv­ing a chair to Randika, a 7-year-old girl who could not sit up by her­self.

“When I first went in the house, she was lay­ing on the floor,” Natasha said.

Randika was lim­ited to play­ing with toys that were within her reach as she lay on her back.

The wheelchair Randika re­ceived once be­longed to Jason, a Tal­bot County boy with the same

con­di­tion. Jason died, but “his par­ents trusted me to give away his wheelchair, to find a child for this wheelchair per­son­ally,” Natasha said.

Randika’s fa­ther works for Natasha’s un­cle, Chinthaka Pan­duwawala, who owns a trac­tor busi­ness in Gam­paha.

“It’s re­ally ex­pen­sive to get treat­ment” in Sri Lanka, Natasha said. “It was re­ally a bless­ing for them. It’s an amaz­ing, amaz­ing thing that I was able to find her and con­nect like this.”

The busy 4.0 honor stu­dent who will turn 17 on Aug. 25 col­lected wheel­chairs, walk­ers and other as­sis­tive de­vices that filled a stor­age space at her fa­ther’s busi­ness, Cey­lon Auto Traders on U.S. Route 50 in Eas­ton.

Ac­com­pa­nied by three male cousins and a fe­male cousin her age, Natasha made the rounds. “They took a big part in hand­ing out do­na­tions,” she said. “They kept me safe. They be­came my trans­la­tors and my big­gest sup­port sys­tem.”

Natasha dis­trib­uted wheel­chairs and walk­ers to “a lot of or­phan­ages” for the el­derly, usu­ally “run by Catholic nuns,” she said. They are called or­phan­ages be­cause the se­nior ci­ti­zens have no fam­ily to care for them.

“Half of the wheel­chairs and a lot of the walk­ers” were given away at “a base, or gov­ern­ment, hos­pi­tal on a big moun­tain in Mahiyan­gana,” Natasha said.

It was a “big, big day” that be­gan with a pa­rade in which tra­di­tional danc­ing girls and boys play­ing drums led Natasha to the hos­pi­tal, where she met with doc­tors, heard speeches and par­tic­i­pated in the bless­ing of the equip­ment by Bud­dhist monks.

Some pa­tients were able to take equip­ment home. One monk took a wheelchair back to a su­pe­rior. A small, young man who sat en­gulfed in a larger wheelchair was able to trade to a smaller, more com­fort­able chair “that was bet­ter for his back and neck,” Natasha said.

“The ship­ment was a huge break­through for (the hos­pi­tal) to be able to serve their pa­tients,” Natasha said.

The Sri Lankan com­mu­nity of 15 to 20 fam­i­lies in the greater Wash­ing­ton, D.C., area also do­nated or­tho­pe­dic aids and money to help with ship­ping.

Natasha said clean­ing, pack­ing and ship­ping the equip­ment en­tailed hard work and more money than she thought it would cost.

Her par­ents, Steve and Manik, helped pay for half of the ship­ping by a freighter ship. What Natasha didn’t know be­fore she left was that the ship­ping cost, plus ad­di­tional fees and taxes once they ar­rived in Sri Lanka, even­tu­ally would add up to about $7,000.

“They didn’t want me to stress about it,” Natasha said. “The ex­tra cost was very, very un­ex­pected. I’m kind of ashamed that that hap­pened. I would never let them do that ever again — that’s not hap­pen­ing.”

She took her fi­nal ex­ams on a Fri­day, and on Sun­day, sang in a recital and jumped on a plane to fly solo to Sri Lanka. It was her first time mak­ing the round-trip by her­self.

Once there, she stayed with her Un­cle Chinthaka and Aunt Chandima. The lo­cal Li­ons Club, of which Chinthaka is pres­i­dent, ar­ranged for trucks to un­load and store the equip­ment in a home owned by an­other un­cle who lives in the United States.

The same em­ploy­ees of the Pan­duwawalas’ fam­i­ly­owned Drive and Shine car wash busi­ness also helped clean and trans­port the aides to the do­na­tion sites.

Natasha said a cou­ple of or­thod­pedic do­na­tions were picked up in-coun­try, but most came from donors here.

“I just want to tell (the donors), ‘You tak­ing time out of your day to bring by a do­na­tion may have saved a life or made life eas­ier for some­one be­cause of your com­pas­sion and gen­eros­ity.”

“Move­ment to Re­mem­ber is go­ing to be do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent this year,” Natasha wrote in an email. “In­stead of col­lect­ing or­tho­pe­dic aids from the US, we will be pur­chas­ing them brand-new and send­ing them di­rectly to Sri Lanka for dis­tri­bu­tion. By do­ing this, we will be able to save re­sources in try­ing to ship over items and we will be able to have more re­li­able aids to give.”

“In ad­di­tion, Move­ment to Re­mem­ber is also be­gin­ning in Australia,” she added. “An­other Sri Lankan, who vol­un­teered to take on this task, is go­ing to be­gin col­lect­ing aids in Australia to send over next year. Hope­fully, both ship­ments will be able to meet at the same time and be­come one large project next sum­mer.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, photos and video, you can find Move­ment to Re­mem­ber on Face­book.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO Natasha Pan­duwawala’s fa­vorite photo in Sri Lanka fea­tures her help­ing 7-year-old Randika sit up­right by her­self in her first wheelchair.

Natasha Pan­duwawala of Eas­ton, is sur­rounded by pa­tients and doc­tors at a gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tal in Sri Lanka. Natasha col­lected or­tho­pe­dic aids lo­cally and dis­trib­uted them with fam­ily mem­bers dur­ing her sum­mer va­ca­tion. She is in the front row in front of a Bud­dhist monk.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTOS

Eas­ton High School ju­nior Natasha Pan­duwawala, right, dis­trib­uted 215 do­nated or­tho­pe­dic aids to poor Sri Lankans dur­ing her sum­mer va­ca­tion. With her is a Catholic nun who is a nurse at an el­der or­phan­age and Natasha’s un­cle.

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