Remembering Joan de Mel

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We at Sumithrayo fondly remember our Mentor and Founder Late Joan de Mel on her Birthday on 21 April 2022.

She passed away on 27 December 2008, in Colombo at the age of 87, leaving behind her daughter Penny and son Nick.

Joan, the widow of a British Army Officer came to Sri Lanka in 1971 to marry Bishop Lakdasa de Mel. Five years of abundantly blessed and happy marriage convinced her that Sri Lanka was her home, where she claimed to have been in her element, with the Bishop, her  large family and many warm hearted Sri Lankan friends.

Persuaded

Energetic and totally committed Joan was persuaded into starting a Branch of Befriender’s International in
Sri Lanka, by none other than Chad Varah- the Founder of the Worldwide Organisation called ‘The Samaritans’ which helps those who are desperate, depressed, and lonely and contemplate suicide. Joan worked as a ‘Samaritan’ in London. Knowing too well that it is a daunting prospect for a foreigner especially in a strange land and culture, Joan spent sleepless nights amidst insurmountable odds with disheartening results.

Then Dr. Hugh, physician of Joan’s husband (Bishop) rekindled her interest when he inquired one day, whether there is any place in England which the suicidal can seek contact to be dissuaded from committing suicide, as
Dr. Hugh had to deal with four attempted cases of suicides admitted to his ward that day. At that time there were no proper statistics of suicides in Sri Lanka.

Why England? Why not here? Joan went back to her initial idea. So, Joan seriously commenced her project with a new energetic steering committee comprising Dr. Wijerama, Mansoor and Nalini mapping out various plans like obtaining a suitable building, telephones, and effective volunteers who were trained. The formalities to register as a charitable organisation were taken into hand.

Sumithrayo was established as a probationary branch of Befriender’s International in 1974 despite diverse frustrations and anxieties confronted during the course, but were overcome and managed with the encouragement and enthusiastic support of her husband, friends and well-wishers.

The name Sumithrayo was chosen after careful consideration to mean ‘Best Friends’ which seemed similar to Befriender’s. With Sumithrayo being realised, Joan’s dreams of a peaceful retirement in her adopted country was shattered and transformed into a busy, hectic and active schedule helping out Sumithrayo. It is noteworthy and highly appreciated that she continued as a volunteer at Sumithrayo like any other till her last, act which portrayed her unstinted commitment to the cause, age being no barrier!

Loving care

Tender loving care is what Sumithrayo offers. Think what it means to someone who is unpleasant, perhaps unkempt or aggressive, certainly difficult to love, when cared for so tenderly by an unknown volunteer friend at Sumithrayo. It obviously transforms them to regain their stature in their own eyes, which in turn makes them feel that their immediate burdens are lessened and they have support and a friend in need.

Joan’s husband Bishop Lakdasa de Mel, passed away peacefully after a brief illness in 1976 with contentment & satisfaction having given his wholehearted support to the establishment of Sumithrayo. We Sumithraya’s are extremely grateful to him for being the prop and force behind Joan and also for giving his valuable land subsequently for the functioning of Sumithrayo.

Joan being a contributor of various articles to newspapers and church magazines, authored her first book as a catharsis soon after her husband’s death, titled ‘Lakdasa de Mel: God’s Servant, World Citizen’s Son’, which was widely circulated and well received.

Caring

Joan also authored another book ‘Closer than a Brother’ the title of the book itself is a quotation from ‘Proverbs’ of the ‘Holy Bible’ which emphasises that Sumithrayo exists, to offer caring and genuine friendship to those who are overwhelmed by their personal problems. She has honestly portrayed how Sumithrayo was created in spite of the uncertainties of its early days, and of the hopes, ideals and enthusiasm that have ensured its continuation and development up to the present day.

Befriending is the essence of the service. Sumithrayo which started with 25 volunteers offering services only three days a week, has now grown to more than 100 trained volunteers from all walks of life. Sumithrayo is open to callers on all 365 days of the year including holidays between 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Sumithrayo has a Drug Demand Reduction Programme – Mel Medura.

There are persons in distress contacting us every day of the year. They visit/telephone/write/e-mail seeking solace for their pressing worries and anxieties, through a trained Befriender/Volunteer with whom confidentiality is paramount.

Suicide

Coping skills is a very important aspect. When pain exceeds resources for coping with pain, suicide is contemplated. Suicide is never chosen; it is the desire to stop living rather than a wish to die! For most, suicidal thoughts remain just as thoughts only. It is when they feel that they have no one who is close enough and to be trusted to help with their problems, ending their life seems the only option. At times like this talking about their stressful situation with a non-judgmental, accepting, understanding and caring person can throw a different light on the situation and will certainly diffuse the suicidal impulse. With Help comes Hope.

In other words when they have negative feelings whether they show it out or not, for e.g., anxiety, sorrow, worries, desperation, fear, etc., over any situation they are currently facing, they need informal and confidential emotional support as a safety valve.

Abuse

It may be due to any recent loss or break up of a close relationship; current or anticipated change in health conditions; alcoholism, drug abuse; mental illness; any other stress situations particularly where there is a family history of suicide or even a previous attempt.

Such people often may show their feelings by: being withdrawn and unable to relate to others; talking about feelings of isolation and loneliness; expressing feelings of failure, uselessness, lack of hope or lack of self- esteem, constantly dwelling on problems for which there seem to be no solutions; or even having definite ideas on how to commit suicide. So why not talk? Talking helps.

One need not be suicidal to contact Sumithrayo. Also, it is not an institution that caters only to the poor and the needy. Persons with emotional needs can be from any walks of life, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, irrespective age. All are treated alike and the key factor is assured confidentiality. No financial or other obligations are imposed on the callers. It is a free service provided by Sumithrayo who are not denominational, religious, political or ideological.

We at Sumithrayo are eternally grateful to Joan for being an example by leading an exemplary life in spite of being the Founder and for leaving a legacy, which will be treasured by us all and for her invaluable contribution to humanity. May she find eternal peace.

 Sumithrayo is at 60B Horton Place, Colombo-7 and can be contacted on 011 2692909 /
011 2683555 / 011 2696666