Two little boys were ushered by their mother into the smoke-filled room where we were waiting. She had just brought them from a leprosy colony. Stick thin and shy, they clung to her saree. The cramped, dark space was home to 25 children, all of whom were “untouchables” for one reason or another. Some were handicapped, some orphans, some were from leprosy colonies. One girl, Devi, was afflicted with progeria, the disease that makes you age rapidly; though only 13 years old, she looked as if she were in her thirties. Several of the children were unable to walk due to either birth deformities or polio.
Cooking was done inside the home over an open fire, and thus the smoke clogged the air and hung between us. I tried to approach the older of the two: Daniel. His mother told us that he had suffered from leprosy but had been cured. His arm was wrapped protectively around his younger brother, David. Trying to break the barrier and engage them, I reached into my purse and brought out two new children’s toothbrushes. I squatted down, so that I could look into their eyes and held the toothbrushes out to them with a smile.
At first neither moved. But finally, curiosity got the better of them and Daniel reached gingerly for the toothbrushes. They had never seen such a thing. I pulled another from my purse and showed them how to brush their teeth. They were fascinated.
The mother was destitute, and was in hiding from the boys’ father who was terribly abusive to both her and the boys. Fearing for their lives, she had fled with only the clothes on their backs. She didn’t want her children to have to beg in order to survive so she brought them to this home. She lingered over dinner with her two beloved boys, then kissed them both tenderly and slipped out the door. They found a little space between other sleeping children at bedtime. 25 children were sleeping in a room about seven feet by eight feet. With arms still wrapped around each other they fell to sleep with exhaustion.
The man running this home had promised the mother that he would send the boys to school, and for the first year things went well. But over time we became more and more concerned about the way children were being treated in this home. There were also many financial inconsistencies and with the unwillingness of the director to make changes, we were forced to end our association with him.
Before long David and Daniel found themselves kept out of school to help this man construct a new home. They forcibly labored long hours in the heat of Southern India. They lived on only rice and water. The two skinny boys got skinnier.
The next time I saw the boys I had learned about what was happening in this home and came to rescue the boys. There was a scene. The man running the home angrily told me he would never agree to send them to the new children’s school we had started. After threatening me, I left—without the boys.
A young mother in Arizona, Lynn Allred, had seen a picture of these two boys at a fireside I gave. Lynne told me that she was convinced that she was to help with these two boys. We all began to pray that the man running the original home would have his heart softened. A long time passed.
On a subsequent trip to India I was pleasantly surprised to enter the Rising Star Children’s Home and see Kala, the boys’ mother. She had come to work for Rising Star as a housemother. She told us that the man running the original home would not allow her boys to leave and even threatened to charge the mother with abandonment of the boys if she tried to remove them.
We all redoubled our prayers for the boys. Then wonder of wonders, on my next trip to India I was stunned to see both David and Daniel at Rising Star Outreach. They were even thinner than I had remembered them. They had been so starved that Daniel, although fourteen, still had not had his voice change. His body had not received enough nutrition to go through puberty and he still had the high-pitched voice of a small Indian child.
They were much older than our other children who were all pre-schoolers, but they were beloved by all the children. They acted almost as surrogate parents; they calmed crying children, played with all the kids and helped with schoolwork.
During all this time, Lynn had worked tirelessly to find a way to bring the two boys to America. At that time if they came on a student visa they had to attend a private school, as the State Department wasn’t willing to allow US taxpayers to foot the bill for their education. Miraculously, she was finally able to find a private school that was willing to accept them even though they were years behind in their studies and didn’t speak English. The school was a Christian school and required that the boys record their testimony of Jesus as part of their admission requirements.
On my next trip to India I excitedly told the boys about this remarkable opportunity. We were required to contact the father, who not only refused to cooperate, but threatened to kill them if they left India. He would relent only if the mother returned to live with him. Again, through the mercies of prayer, the father finally relented and agreed to let the boys go.
My dear friend Sharon Thompson was with me on this trip. We both grabbed an interpreter and sat down with the two boys to record their testimonies of Jesus. I listened while Daniel told his feelings about Jesus. I was surprised to learn that Kala was actually a member of the Church. She had not been allowed to attend Church by her husband, but she had carefully taught the boys about their loving Savior. Daniel’s testimony was simple and incredibly sweet. I had the interpreter read his testimony back to him and then asked, “Is this everything you’d like to say?” Daniel paused only for a moment before adding earnestly, “Please add that of all the boys in the world I feel that I am the most blessed.”
I could hardly believe my ears and tears involuntarily stung my eyes. This boy who owned only the clothes on his back, and had been afflicted with one of the most dreaded diseases in the world—and thus branded as untouchable; who had been forced to run from a violent father and been given to a cruel man to raise, who had been forced to work in the hot sun as an unpaid laborer instead of attending school, who had been separated from his loving mother, who had recently had his father threaten to kill him, and who had endured all kinds of unspeakable privation—still had his heart overflowing with gratitude. I thought wryly, “Well, with all that I’ve been blessed with, I must be the most ungrateful woman in the world!!”
All this time I thought I was going to help Daniel. In reality, I wasn’t lifting him as much as he was inspiring me! That night he taught me in an unforgettable way that gratitude has nothing to do with what we have, and absolutely everything to do with our hearts and our humility. Since that night, when I am feeling beset with problems and challenges that seem overwhelming and I find myself tempted to whine, I remember the skinny young boy, filled with gratitude who taught me to be thankful in all circumstances.
Note: The boys did come to study in America. They not only learned English but graduated from High School here. They went on to LDSBC and have both graduated from there. Daniel is now studying Hospitality at BYUH and David is studying business at BYU. Daniel is married to a wonderful young lady and they are the proud parents of a charmingly beautiful little girl, Saroja Rose.
In 1997 Steve Jobs was back at Apple, and big things were on the horizon for the company. When BYU grad Amy Antonelli (BA ’03) began working as a spokesperson for Apple in 2001 she saw firsthand how Jobs was changing the company. “Steve Jobs had this vision that we were going to change the world,” Antonelli says. “It was actually pretty remarkable, because it was a pretty far-fetched at the time. He was so convincing and his enthusiasm was so contagious. . . . I really learned from Steve how to engage people around a common cause.”
Antonelli had a bright future in Silicon Valley, but her life took a sharp deviation from its planned course at the end of 2004. “. . . At the end of 2004, a tsunami hit India, and it just wiped out the entire Indian Ocean Coast.” Antonelli spontaneously traveled with her friend to India to see how they could help the suffering tsunami victims. “It was horrifying and tragic,” Antonelli recalls. “But it was also really beautiful because there were a lot of people that were coming together to help.”
During her few weeks of service, Antonelli met Becky Douglas, a mother from Atlanta, Georgia. Douglas’s family had started a non-profit called Rising Star Outreach to assist the Indian leprosy beggars, and Douglas took Antonelli to visit a leprosy colony. Antonelli was stunned. “It was the first time that I had ever seen anything like that,” she describes. “I’d seen some poverty, but I had never seen anything remotely close to what I saw [then] . . . raw sewage all over the ground; the stench was horrifying. All I could see was this God-forsaken disgusting place. All I wanted to do was leave.”
As Antonelli recoiled from the scene, she made eye-contact with a leprous woman. She approached the woman, and they began to talk. Antonelli quickly discovered that leprosy was traditionally seen as a curse in India, so the lepers, “were considered to be defiled and de-human. . . . [They] were literally just thrown away.” Listening intently to the woman, Antonelli touched the woman’s shoulder in a gesture of empathy, and the woman’s reaction changed Antonelli’s life forever. “[The woman’s] shock that someone had touched her was written all over her face. . . [she believed] she was literally untouchable.”
Antonelli had found her purpose. She and Douglas quickly began to develop a vision for Rising Star Outreach: creating a place where lepers could go and feel safe. When Antonelli arrived back in California she promptly quit her job at Apple and moved back to India to work as Rising Star Outreach’s executive director.
Over the next seven years people from all walks of life came to help with Rising Star Outreach. Padma Venkataraman, daughter of former Indian president Ramaswamy Venkatraman, joined with Rising Star Outreach to provide microloans to lepers who wanted to start their own small businesses. The Peery family helped construct a school for the lepers’ children. The Marriotts helped build boys and girls dormitories for the new school. Many other volunteers flooded Rising Star Outreach’s campus, and Antonelli realized, “Rising Star [is] half about the people we serve and half about the people that [come] to do the serving.” Volunteers’ lives changed through their service, just as Antonelli’s did.
After seven years of service in India, Antonelli decided to return to the United States. She earned an MPA at Harvard to learn more about non-profit management, and spent the next few years jumping between jobs. First Antonelli helped Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandburg design a program to help Facebook employees feel more connected to the company mission. After that she spent a couple years designing a mentoring program for impoverished people until she ultimately ended up working as the CEO of Deseret Network International.
Deseret Network, the parent company for Humanitarian Experience for Youth (or HEFY), seeks to help LDS teens strengthen their testimony and become more involved in the world through humanitarian service. Teens volunteer for two to three weeks helping build schools, homes and medical centers in places such as Tonga, Brazil, Ghana, and Mexico.
The youth aren’t the only ones whose lives are changed through HEFY. “Working for HEFY has really been one of the great honors of my life,” says Antonelli. “I never expected to feel so powerfully the impact of losing yourself in the service of others. To see that happen in the lives of the youth is really humbling.”
In 2017 Antonelli is beginning a new program, Youth Summit Israel, where she will take 30 LDS teens to Jerusalem to meet with other Muslim and Jewish teens. By understanding and contributing to the religious identities of people from different religious backgrounds, the teens will strengthen their own Mormon identity. With over 1,800 kids going on 80 different HEFY trips this summer, Antonelli has a lot to plan and organize, but she is ready to expand her vision for Deseret Network. Antonelli will continue to assist with HEFY and she will also continue to create new programs such as the Youth Summit Israel. As she works to help teens grow, the experience will undoubtedly change Antonelli as well.
Former NBA player Shawn Bradley helps children with their studies at
the Rising Star Outreach campus in Thottanaval, India.
This column is a report from India, where I have just finished touring my book, “Neighbors in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent.” While I was there, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, a national holiday, came around. I decided to take the holiday to visit Rising Star Outreach — a charity that helps leprosy-affected people near Chennai in the south of India. There it operates a secondary school to help children with leprosy.
Rising Star’s Peery Matriculation Higher Secondary School actually serves more than leprosy-affected students. Students who have leprosy-affected people in their families are treated as if they themselves suffer from the disease, so the school must serve a very wide community.
It also has a mobile clinic and a medical team that goes to 13 leprosy colonies around Chennai and the rest of India. Chennai has severe pockets of poverty with almost medieval quality of life. There I met with Dr. Susan Hilton, a native who runs almost the whole operation. In the United States, Rebecca Douglas is the founder and president. The charity has a U.S. base in Provo, Utah, and anyone who wishes to donate to it can find out more at Rising Star Outreach’s website.
I was amazed at the progress many of the children make. They presented us with a classical dance performed by the young men and women. They have science and math labs that will prepare them for entering the workforce. I also saw some hopeless cases of people with destroyed limbs and facial features. It was a gut-wrenching experience but one I needed. I have been going to India for almost 45 years, either as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate, as a teacher or just as a man visiting friends. This visit to the Rising Star Outreach campus was the most poignant, startling and maybe refreshing visit I have had. My problems seem minuscule after seeing theirs — I have not faced any challenge anywhere near what they face.
There are many similar leprosy centers run by Rising Star associates across India. It is hard to believe leprosy is still a problem in today’s world. What happens is that once someone is in a family with anyone associated with leprosy, even if they are recovered, they are branded as lepers and forever outcasts. They cannot marry into anything except another family with leprosy, and they have no jobs and cannot get out. Thus, for many centuries, leprosy has continued, from the time of Christ onward.
I have just been honored to have a seat on the board of advisors of Rising Star Outreach, and I will be attending my first meeting this weekend at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I am very glad this volunteer opportunity has come to this 75-year-old. We have several needs in our own country, and I will do what I can wherever. This leprosy-related work has an edge or a poignancy to it that makes me want to serve my fellow man and God even more.
The main purpose of my trip to India was to do a book tour with my Indian publisher, Penguin. But the chief result personally was my eye-opening visit to Rising Star Outreach’s school and colony. It has far exceeded any event in my life recently.
This article first appeared in Deseret News on October 16, 2017
Sen. Larry Pressler was a U.S. senator for 18 years and congressman for four years. He is a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law graduate and a Vietnam veteran.
This article, written by Becky Douglas, first appeared in Meridian Magazine on October 4, 2017.
Several years ago a letter arrived with a return address that immediately caught my attention. It was from a prisoner in Maximum Security at the Utah State Prison. My interest was immediately piqued and I tore open the envelope and began to read. It was from a prisoner on death row, Doug Lovell. His story caught me completely by surprise:
Several years ago PBS had featured a one-hour documentary on the work we do in India with the leprosy-affected called Breaking the Curse. It proved to be wildly popular, eventually gaining over 1,000 showings on PBS. It even won the Gracie Award that year! But the greatest impact it had on me personally arrived in this letter from Maximum Security.
Doug had seen the documentary in his cell and had been profoundly touched. He decided to send $5 a month to support our work in India. He said he could do this because the state allotted him $30/month to purchase necessities such as shaving cream, deodorant, etc. He normally managed to save enough money to buy himself one Coca-Cola a week. By giving up his Coke, he figured he could manage this donation. I wondered how long his resolve might hold.
His checks began arriving each month like clockwork. After several months, I wrote him a thank you note. He responded immediately and thus an interesting relationship of pen pals was born.
I have now been corresponding with him for more than ten years. I have visited him in prison (yes, in Maximum Security!) on a number of occasions. He has also become incredibly dedicated to our work in India. His donations quickly increased to $10/month—a third of his income! He took a job at the prison delivering meals to newly arrived inmates to earn more money to donate. That has had a tsunami affect!
As he meets new prisoners, they are generally very depressed and hopeless. They are overcome with feelings of self-recrimination and worthlessness. Doug understands where they are coming from. He is in prison for a hideous crime of rape and murder and for many years figured there was no salvation or forgiveness possible for him. But he was eventually converted back to God and wishes now to do all in his power to help others who are struggling.
He quietly encourages these discouraged men with downcast eyes and heavy hearts that no matter what they have done, they can still reach out to God—that He is in fact, waiting to hear from them with open arms. If they don’t believe it, he tells them, “they should write to Becky”.
As a result, I am now writing to nearly 30 men in prison! My husband teases me that I have more pen pals who are incarcerated than who walk free! They are desperate to know that God still loves them; that they still have worth. Their crimes run the gamut; from the former Stake Presidency member with two sons on a mission who got involved in white-collar crime—to a man in prison for abusing multiple children.
Doug also convinced his prison Bishop that he should invite me to speak to the prisoners, so I received an invitation to address men from the general prison population at the weekly LDS Church Service at the prison. I decided to speak on, “The Eternal Worth of a Soul”. I was the only speaker and given forty minutes.
Along with the Bishopric, I stood at the entrance to the prison chapel as the men filed in. Each one introduced himself by name. I smiled, looked in their eyes, and repeated their names as I shook their hands. The chapel was filled.
As I looked out over the congregation I was struck by their expressions. Some seemed a bit defiant or even ashamed, but for the most part there was humility and suffering in their faces. I prayed for guidance to say what would be needed.
As I talked, I watched expressions changing. I saw a glimmer of hope on some faces. One man was teary. Others remained expressionless. I had been warned that at ten minutes to the hour the lights would flicker and a large number would walk out to attend their other elective activity. Sure enough when the lights flickered about 30 men got up and walked out. Then unbelievably a minute later, most of them walked back in again! They had convinced their guards to let them return. They clearly hungered to hear that they still had worth to God, that He could be forgiving and that He loved them regardless of their choices.
Afterwards a number of men crowded around wanting to thank me for the message. Some choked up as they spoke, some were clearly embarrassed by their situation, but quietly told me that they felt my words were meant for them, and were what they needed to hear.
The entire event was incredibly humbling.
A few days later I received a note from a Bishop from another ward at the prison—this one in Maximum Security. He wondered if I could return the following Sunday and share the same message with prisoners in Maximum Security. Returning the following Sunday I had another remarkable experience.
This time there was no general worship meeting. Instead we had to meet the prisoners either individually or two by two. They were shackled at the waist to their chairs. Their feet were shackled, as were their hands. It felt a bit awkward. But once again I was struck by how hungry they were to find their way back to God.
One man in particular, impressed me. He was a tall, striking African American. He spoke of how he wanted to know if there was a way back for him. He said he had begun reading the New Testament. When I asked him about his family he told me that his father was a Protestant Minister in South Carolina.
“My father, Reverend John, is a good man. My whole family are good people, except for me.” With the last three words his eyes shifted downward with shame. As I prodded him to tell me more he continued hesitantly, “My father is ashamed of me.” I asked him if he had tried to contact his father? He replied that he had written him many times asking for money, but had never received an answer.
I asked him if he would like me to try to contact his father. “Oh yes”, he nodded. He gave me his father’s phone number. What is your message for your father? He replied, “Tell him how much I respect him and mom and my brothers and sisters. Tell him how sorry I am and that I’m ready to change. Tell him that more than anything I want to make my father proud one day.”
“Okay” I said. “But I’m not going to ask your father for money and neither are you if he responds—until you can first repair your relationship.” He seemed surprised, but then agreed.
I thought of how our Heavenly parents might react to this child desperately wanting to come back not only to his earthly father, but to his Heavenly Father and Mother, as well. His earthly father may well reject him, but his Heavenly Parents never will.
I’ve been trying to reach his father for the last two weeks. I wish I had his mother’s number, because I suspect she might be more accepting. I’m praying that his dad will be accepting and open and forgiving. I’m praying that his brothers and sisters can be welcoming. And I’m praying that his Church community can be forgiving.
I would hope that if he came to our Church he would be welcomed and encouraged, rather than judged. It’s easy to fear even a repentant sinner. It’s easy to judge and condemn those who have struggled with any issues that we don’t have trouble with. As President Uchtdorf once said, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you!” I’m not advocating that offenders don’t need to pay their debt to society. They definitely do! I believe that it’s all part of the repentance process. But I’m advocating that we leave judgment to God, and personally forgive.
I’ve read with interest recent articles in Meridian about divorced people in the Church who struggle with isolation and rejection; articles about missionaries returning early who feel judged and unworthy, articles about single adults who feel left out and like second class citizens.
We can do better! I wish everyone could have the experience of sitting on the stand at the worship service at the prison and watching the faces of about 100 men who had chosen to spend their free hour on Sunday trying to reconnect with God, instead of in a sports activity or other activity they could have chosen instead. The hunger was palpable. May we always be found on the side of those who lift and encourage, rather than on the side of those who judge, reject and condemn.
To further unravel the mentality of begging among the leprosy-affected and the habit of being recipients of aid instead of productive citizens, the students of the Peery School get all of their special treats and fun stuff – including gifts from their RSO sponsors – by earning them at the Star Store. This is a small store set up behind their hostel where items “for sale” can be purchased using ‘stars’ that students earn for good behaviour and accumulate. The inspiration behind the store was an incident in which a student from the school intentionally broke a crayon, but assured his teacher: “Don’t worry, the Americans will send us more.” This sparked an acknowledgment amongst the staff and management that “nothing given for free has any value,” and that students need to learn early on how to work for things they want and model this throughout their lives.
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