Embroidering dreams

The Sunday Times – Sunday April 17, 2011

Begun as a tsunami project to help those affected in Payagala, Hearts and Hands has now empowered women of the area
By Nivedita Raitz von Frentz

Off the sandy track an hour south of Colombo, amid lush banana and palm trees so typical of the Sri Lankan landscape, lies the sleepy fishing village of Payagala. Along with many southern coastal areas, it too was battered by the 2004 tsunami, but from those ashes, rose Hearts & Hands (H&H), overseen by the dedicated duo of Marianne Johnpillai and Sue Harrison.

To arrive at this point, rewind to 2003 when visits to a destitute parish widow prompted Marianne to form the registered charity HOPeS, Homes of Peace and Shelter, with like-minded trustees, with the aim of building houses in Athurugiriya.


Hands that keep hearts happy: Women turning out cards, bookmarks, bags and patchworked handicraft

In the wake of the tsunami, Marianne chanced to visit Payagala and felt the extent of the devastation at the sight of a man shovelling frantically, looking for the last vestiges of his shop. She hit upon the idea of extending HOPeS’s remit to repair damaged houses and make new ones for those who had lost their homes, in due course building 35 houses. “People had taken possession of their homes within a year. It wasn’t too hard actually, since HOPeS had been active pre-tsunami and had a good credibility and accountability record,” said Marianne.

I found it difficult to say goodbye when the rebuilding project was over,” says Marianne. She called an informal gathering of the local women benefitting from HOPeS’s reconstruction programme, and proposed that they inject something back into the community. “We hoped to move people’s hearts to help our cause; the women would be putting their hands to good use, so Hearts & Hands seemed to fit the bill,” smiled Marianne, ending up with a group of seven women when H&H was founded in mid 2006.

Sue brought her greeting card-making skills to the table; the women turned out to be fast learners and a stupendous 8,000 intricately hand-crafted Christmas cards were sold in their first year. Sadly, because of the economic downturn, card sales plummeted and the women had to fight against all odds to keep H&H alive. Delicate wine bags, a variety of all-purpose bags, bookmarks and jewellery have been added to the repertoire. More recently, the women were trained in patchwork, turning out exquisitely hand-stitched quilts. Connections with Colombo’s expatriate community were a conduit to participation in bazaars, raking in their best takings ever at the 2010 Christmas charity sale.

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