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’ family-owned Drive and Shine car wash business also helped clean and transport the aides to the donation sites.
Natasha said that 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.