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Tribute of love to Sumithrayo founder Joan De Mel on her 103rd b’day

Tribute of love to Sumithrayo founder Joan De Mel on her 103rd b’day

19 Apr 2024 | BY Sumithrayo

Twenty-first April of this year (2024) marks the 103rd birth anniversary of Joan De Mel who founded Sumithrayo. She was a mentor and her selfless passion towards social change has inspired and touched all. Though her soul is free in the blissful realms beyond this world since 27 December 2008, the love and care that she showered on the Sri Lankan community linger on still through the emotional support provided to the needy. She will always resonate through her beautiful example.   

Joan De Mel, being a British citizen, came to Sri Lanka in 1971 and married Bishop Lakdasa Jacob De Mel. Since then, the large family of her husband and warmhearted Sri Lankan friends made Joan De Mel adopt Sri Lanka as her home.

At the behest of a doctor who had seen four attempted suicides in one day in his ward at the General Hospital, Joan De Mel was prompted to establish Sumithrayo for suicide prevention with the full support of her husband and with the assistance of a steering committee comprised of one Dr. Wijerama, Nalini Ellawela and Munsoor Ghouse. This organisation which began in two rooms in Deans Road, Colombo as the 15th branch of the World Wide Organisation of Befrienders in 1974, later moved to operate in the ancestral property of Joan De Mel’s husband in Colombo 7.

Assorted men and women from all walks of life were selected for being caring and loving people to work voluntarily without any remuneration. All were trained to express this care in a way that may help others in a less fortunate situation. Joan De Mel was a strict disciplinarian and aptly trained the volunteers to give emotional support to those who are despairing, depressed and sometimes suicidal and also to befriend any person who is emotionally disturbed or upset.

The organisation’s ethics confine to complete confidentiality between the callers and the volunteers who meet them. The volunteers are not allowed to discuss religion or politics. The service offered is completely free of charge. There are no obligations entered into, and no moral judgements are made by the volunteers. Tender loving care is still a panacea for many of those who feel that they cannot cope with life. The assurance of confidentiality and anonymity does help to comfort the caller. Befriending is being there for a distressed caller, encouraging the caller to pour out all their feelings and listening constructively by accepting them non-judgmentally and by showing an empathetic, compassionate response, and building rapport to help the caller relax and to dissipate some of the tension. Just an empathetic look does help.

Whilst talking together, the caller relieving all that has been stressing them and the volunteer saying little but conveying understanding, gives some relief to lessen the immediate stress. From there onwards, the volunteer may then verbalise some of the options available, taking into consideration the family, financial status, etc., of the caller exclusively, in order to help the caller to relieve the immediate agony. It is just putting together unhappy, distressed people with a trained, friendly, empathetic listener to accept certain unpleasant situations non-judgmentally. This empowers the callers to handle their situation in their own manner. Those who have shared their emotional problems may return, when a new difficult situation occurs, seeking help. 

The organisation has a drug demand reduction programme which is housed at ‘Mel Medura’ in Number 60, Horton Place, Colombo 7, promoting a healthy lifestyle free of harmful substances, distress and despair.

Joan De Mel was always happy and content that some people are alive today and are living happily as a result of contacting us. However, Joan De Mel was shattered when her husband Bishop De Mel passed away. To get over the emotional stress after his death, she authored a book titled ‘Lakdasa De Mel: God’s Servant, World Citizen’s Son’. What an appropriate title to honour him. This empowered her to bounce back to life. She also authored a book ‘Closer Than A Brother’ explaining in detail how she founded this organisation amidst many hurdles.

Joan De Mel did not interfere in the management of the organisation. Joan De Mel was not egoistic, seeking fame, power or position in return for the invaluable service mooted out by her in founding such an organisation for our country with many such regional centres thereafter. Moreover, she continued to be a humble volunteer till her last days. She was so simple, kind, caring and adaptive without any pride whatsoever that she was the founder. It is a rare trait that could be found in a person. 

The confidential emotional support in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages without any charges whatsoever continued since then and is still available all 365 days (including all holidays) of the year from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Joan De Mel guided the destiny of Sumithrayo till she departed with her generosity and her passionate commitment to help those in distress. She made her premises and land at her home in Horton Place available for the services that the Sumithrayo provided. Almost all her income was made available to charity and her own lifestyle was simple and uncluttered.

Sumithrayo is eternally grateful to Joan De Mel 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 Sumithrayo in particular and by the community at large.

In loving remembrance of the Sumithrayo founder Joan De Mel on her 103rd birthday 

Seeds of selflessness dwell in our hearts

With its roots deeply embedded in confidentiality and trust

Watering our minds with the importance of caring and listening with one’s heart

Nourishing our value of empowering sans advising

Erasing the need for judgement and embracing one for who they are

Enriching our view of life with new perspectives

To understand the needy

To Sumithrayo founder Joan De Mel, who created hope and a haven for any human

We bestow upon her our heartfelt gratitude

With a vision to continue her legacy

Of outreaching to the needy

And to hold high the principles of Sumithrayo for which we stand.

This year, Sumithrayo proudly celebrates 50 years of listening and serving the public. 

(Sumithrayo is a mental health service providing confidential, emotional support to people experiencing feelings of distress, despair and suicide. It is a Government approved charity that is now housed at No. 60B, Horton Place, Colombo 7. The organisation was incorporated by an Act of Parliament, No. 10 of 1986. It can be contacted via telephone-0112692909/0112683555/0112696666, electronic, and the


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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