She’s so much more than a very pretty face. She designs, she volunteers, she paints. And most of all, she cares. I talk to Kamilka to find out just what drives her to live such an inspired (and inspiring) life.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
On Giving and Gratitude
One conversation doesn’t seem to be enough to aptly capture the width and breadth of all what Kamilka Perera does. In fact, at just 4 feet and 8 inches, Kamilka says she all she needs is just a bit more height! “I’ve found my ways around that too. When I go to a site, I look for the tallest place I can stand on- usually a small staircase, or even a mound of sand. It’s hard enough to get all the working men to take orders from a woman, so getting to look them straight in the eyes helps!”, she says speaking of her work as an Architect, which is just one of her many roles. “It was always a choice between being a Veterinarian or an Architect. I love animals, I still volunteer to care for injured animals. But at the time, having not gone into Bio-Stream, Architecture was the choice I made”.
Kamilka says she was fortunate to be accepted into the University of Moratuwa. When asked about her experience as a student, she says “I got ragged, and I wasn’t prepared for it. When the seniors asked the Colombo school students to raise their hands, I promptly did because I thought that you had to listen to them. I was wrong!”, she laughs. “It was hard, but at the end of it, it was a good feeling to know I survived that”. The fact that she didn’t have to pay anything for what is usually one of the most expensive study courses in the world isn’t something she took lightly. In fact, in order to give back to in some way, she has enrolled for certain semesters as a Visiting Tutor at the Faculty of Architecture. “It’s so disheartening to see how many students take it for granted and don’t work hard enough. I am constantly reminding them that for each person sitting in class, there are so many others who missed out! I wish they understood and appreciated this more”.
Her decision to work as an Independent Architect was taken after having completed 8 years of full time work. “Architecture is a strenuous course of seven long consecutive years, and you come out in your late twenties, whilst your friends have already been working several years in the corporate sector and are well established. In Sri Lanka, the pay for starting qualified Architects is not great, which can be discouraging at that point in your life. Ideally, there should be a standardized pay grade”, says Kamilka. “I prefer working alone, as I get to be selective about which projects I take on. And it also lets me have time to spend on the (many) other things I love to do”.
Her lists of involvements are long; her passion projects are many. Of these, the primary one is ‘Spread a little love’, through which she raises funds towards the Maharagama Apeksha Hospital (better known as Cancer Hospital). The most recent donation an ultrasound machine worth over 5 million rupees. It all began in 1998 when Kamilka was still a teenager. “It started very randomly. My aunt was visiting the Cancer Hospital as a volunteer and took me along with her one day. It was close to Christmas, and while the whole city was decked in lights, the wards were bare. So I wanted to put up a Christmas tree for them”. Armed with the can-do attitude that is ever present at amongst the young, Kamilka made it happen. With the necessary approvals, her next visit to the hospital was with a Christmas Tree, which she decorated with the help of her friends, much to the delight of both the young and old patients. Her eagerness to make a difference never waned, and 21 years later SALL is an annual year end event that many donors have marked on their calendars. “This year, since I already raised funds for the machine, I didn’t want to call for donations so soon after. But I still had people calling and asking to donate”, she says of the 1000 bags project worth Rs.4.5 million that she works towards annually. “At the beginning, we bought the patients apples and oranges, but then decided to get them each a bag containing things they’d need for a long term stay at the hospital, the bag comprises of 20-35 items such as a pillow, towel, flask, bed sheets, sanitary items and more.
I ask her how she manages to stay composed in the face of so much tragedy, a question prompted by her telling me that she has watched patients die, even those she had visited regularly and formed bonds with. “Self-preservation is vital. You need to learn when to step back. It’s the only way to keep going. If I were to break down, then how can I help?”
In a twist of fate, Kamilka herself was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer in 2009. “Others might think of it as a cruel joke, getting cancer when I had been devoting so much time and energy trying to help those with the same illness. But I chose to look at it differently. If I was to get Cancer, this would have been the best form of it to get. It could have been much worse, and I see evidence of that all the time at the hospital. I was lucky that all I had to lose was my thyroid, and in return another chance at life”. Her optimism and grateful attitude have helped her overcome almost all rough spots in her life, of which she says she’s had many. She stresses that what lies at the heart of anyone who is at peace with themselves is gratitude, and worries that the younger generation lacks enough of it. “It needs to be cultivated at a young age. We need to see how every day is a blessing. For each challenge I face, I think of the challenges I don’t have to face. There is suffering everywhere, on every level, but you can find things to be grateful for if you look for them”.
To find out how you can donate or volunteer for the projects she spearheads, visit ‘Spread a Little Love’ on Facebook.
As appeared in Pulse magazine, Mar/Apr 2020 issue