We were visiting Chettipunyam, the colony where I danced to Justin Bieber with Saleema and Das. So far it was my favorite colony (don’t tell anyone I’m picking favorites) and it was only about to become a more favorite. I didn’t know why some of my students were home on a random Thursday, but I found out a little bit later from Saleema that it was because their father/uncle had died of a heart attack. The oldest son, Daniel, is 10, so the father was very young – so devastating to the family, especially the wife who had just had another baby.
Nevertheless, the kids were all very excited to show me their home. I’ll be honest… I was excited to see it. It’s so nice to see where these kids come from. As we walked down the path to their house, I asked Keerthika Devi how she was. In America everyone says, “I’m good,” but here the norm is, “I’m fine, thank you.” She said just that with a big smile, then suddenly got distracted by something like all 1st graders do and she ran off with Dharshika, a UKG girl. I was left with Daniel holding my hand. I looked down at him and asked him how he was.
“I’m WONDERFUL,” he said. How does he know that word? I thought to myself. Then I remembered: on the first day I ever taught 4th STD I taught them the word wonderful. I taught them that it means very super, very excited, very happy. Daniel remembered that small minute or two of me teaching them a new word, and here he was, almost three months later, three days after his father passed away, and he is holding my hand, smiling, telling me he is wonderful. That was wonderful. I’ve been having a harder time lately and that moment touched my heart profoundly – not only because he was saying this so soon after such a tragic event, but because it was evidence that these kids are listening – even if it’s only one or two a day, and it’s something as small as a happy new word such as wonderful. I wasn’t doing nothing.
“Oh good! You learned that from me, didn’t you?” I said with a smile. He looked at me with a face of someone who had accomplished something great. “Yes I did! How are you?” Earlier I had said I was fine to Keerthika Devi, but now I took a second and could honestly say, “You know what – I am wonderful as well.”
I saw their home and met their mother and aunt, and after we did crafts and I painted their fingernails. We found some blue glitter in the craft box and I put it on the girls’ eyelids to make them feel extra beautiful. Tender moments. I loved that although all of these kids go to school and are getting a good education, they still love Das like a brother despite his dirty clothes and lack of education. Love holds no bounds for these children, because they used to be there (I am also curious as to why Das doesn’t go to school… he’s 7 years old and all the other kids in the colony go to school except him). After a bit we headed back to the community hall (which is just a one-room building that Rising Star volunteers built for them in years past) and on the way I wanted to stop and say hello to a woman I had met last time. Her name is Maria; she has no hands or feet but can dress her own wounds. She told us she had lost a son and shed some tears over it. I wanted to visit her and see how she was doing. The second I came to her door and sat next to her she fell onto me and started crying. She was dirty and her hair was greasy but I kissed her head anyway. She sobbed for a bit while I tried to soothe her suffering by simply holding her. One of the translators came looking for me (by the kids’ request) and he found me with Maria. She cried out to him in Tamil and when she lifted her arms and waved them rapidly I can only assume she said “I have no hands,” she gestured to her feet, “I have no feet,” she lifted her skirt to show some of her ulcers, “I have open wounds and pain!” She did some other gestures and pounded on her heart, still speaking in Tamil, and when she looked to the heavens and shook her arms with tears streaming down her face it was clear she was crying out, “Why? Why has my God done this to me??” The anguish was so powerful. The translator talked to her for a bit, and later he explained to me more of what she was saying. Turns out she hadn’t lost just one, but all four of her sons to sudden illness or accidents and this man who had just died from a heart attack was her grandson. She hasn’t had any food or drink since he passed away (three days) and Rex told me that she said if she could walk, she would jump in front of a train – that she wishes to move on and be done with this life. And really… who could blame her?
I returned to the community hall. Already I’d had urges to cry of who knows what emotion more than a few times. When I walked in, everyone was in there mingling. Games were out; kids were playing Jenga, catch, drawing, talking, etc. Every single person in the room was smiling and the sun was shining in through the windows (not actually glass windows, just cut outs in the wall). I talked to Saleema for a bit, and she shared her excitement about her niece getting married this January and told me to come to the wedding. She also told me she was the grandmother of Sanjeevini, the 1st STD girl I talked about in my last post. She said I could call her “mummy” and asked me how Moosa is doing, a 4th STD boy who recently had heart surgery that I spend a good amount of time with in medical while he’s recovering. Everything she said was gracious thanks; what a blessing that my niece is getting married, thanks to God for my wonderful family, praise to God for the success of Moosa’s surgery – attributing every good thing in life to God. She’s not wrong; every good thing in life does come from God, and this moment was good, so I thought to myself, Thank you, dear God, for putting me right here right now.
There was so much joy in that room that day. It was overflowing. I brought my speaker and we played cheery music in the background. The littlest sister, Sindu Jensey, drew a “henna” on my hand with a pen and was so proud of it. Dharshika got into the first aid kit and found the latex gloves… instead of trying to keep the kids away from that stuff like we usually would, we started blowing the gloves up like balloons. How excited those kids were to a] have balloons, b] have the balloons come from something they weren’t expecting and c] have the balloons HAVE FINGERS!! There were so many priceless moments shared that day. It was wonderful.
I got on the bus and wanted to start crying. My insides were overwhelmed with a roller coaster of so many different emotions – I felt like I was going to explode… or I don’t know, maybe counterintuitively implode. Today I had experienced excitement, tragedy, worth, awe, encouragement, inspiration, harsh reality, creativity, intrigue, beauty, simplicity, responsibility, curiosity, pain, heartbreak, shock, empathy, relief, fun, laughter, sharing, gratitude, positivity, genuine love and pure joy.
It all goes to show that these people are fully human. They experience all the same emotions that we do, they’re just in a different location and physical situation. So often people will say, “Oh these people have nothing, yet they are so happy.” Often, this is true**, as shown in the community hall. But guess what – they still experience grief and pain. The mother was in mourning and the grandmother was in such a deep depression that she wanted to commit suicide. She has nothing (in our terms), and she is not happy. People see the happy ones; they’re the ones that come out to socialize and meet us. They don’t see the ones who hide away from the world and are hurt and struggling to keep afloat in life; I do. Everyone is human, and no one is exempt from the trials and sufferings of life.
**It’s starting to bother me when people say they have nothing. They don’t have nothing; they have everything. Okay, maybe not everything. Indeed there are extreme struggles, sometimes they don’t have food or shoes or clothes, they’re abused, their houses are falling to pieces – this is hard. But the fact of the matter is that they don’t need what we Americans consider “necessary,” they don’t need dishwashers and laundry machines and showers and a room full of fancy clothes. For the life they lead, they have what they need. If I were to try to live in Provo, UT without a toilet, that obviously would be a problem. But here it’s not necessary. They have less than us, but they don’t have nothing; they just don’t have the unnecessary.
Anyway, love. I love Chettipunyam.
Artists all Around
One of the colonies has established an art school for those affected by leprosy in the colonies. It’s actually incredible what these people can do. This is a painting I bought with the artist. Notice her hands. Yes, that’s right. This extraordinary painting was done by a woman who is lacking full fingers.
Later that day I paid a visit to the medical center. If I haven’t already said this, one of my sweet 4th STD boys had heart surgery a couple weeks ago and is recovering in medical until he is cleared to go back to school. I try to go over there to spend time with him, so this time I went over with Jenga and a coloring book. Other kids there obviously joined in. We had a blast.
This post first appeared on the
This post was written by one of our wonderful interns, Jodee McKeon. Her time working with us has come to an end, and we are already missing her smile and energy in the office. Good luck with everything, Jodee!
We accept volunteers of all kinds to work at our Provo, Utah office – not just university internships. If you are interested in volunteering with us, please contact Shalay Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801.820.0466. We’d love to to have you!
Now my time at Rising Star is nearly coming to the end and it’s incredible what I experienced here. India itself had a major impact on me. Here I found a deeper connection to myself.
Rising Star in particular made me think about believing again. I already posted about that weeks ago that especially here I see how important it is for people to believe. It helps them when they struggle in their daily life and when they struggle here I don’t mean that colleague X said something inappropriate at work today but having just claws where there used to be hands due to leprosy, having been left alone by family and friends cause they got sick, kids who can only dream about a home that we know with water out of a tab, electricity 24/7 and a loving family who gives us hugs when we are feeling bad. But believing in someone or something (not matter what religion) gives them strength to work towards a better future, it makes them happy and especially content with the life they have… which is such a great gift! And they even share this strength with others.
I have some dry spots on my hand due to skin irritations I am having occasionally. When the girls from the class I thought saw those spots they were really worried. I said it was alright and it really is…. it’s nothing that comes just close to being a serious issue! But the kids check on my hands every time they see me and tell me ‘every night, sis, I pray for you’… they-pray-for-me!!! I cannot even put in words how I feel about that… amazed, thankful, blessed… it just seems so unreal how deeply selfless, caring and strong those kids are! ❤️
This post was originally seen on Meridian Magazine.
How One Person Turned the Tide in India and Saved Thousands of People
By Becky Douglas · June 4, 2017
In November, 2015, the heavens opened up in Tamilnadu, India. The annual monsoon came with a vengeance. It was the wettest monsoon in over 100 years. More than forty inches of rain fell in November. One day a seemingly unbelievable 10 ½ inches of rain fell in one 24-hour period. The entire state was flooded.
People were forced out of their homes—some of which were standing in seven feet of water. The floodwater was contaminated with sewage, so water-borne diseases quickly became a real threat. Then on December first more than twelve inches of rain fell, making it the wettest day in three hundred years!
Ten million people were displaced. But where could they go? There was flooding on all sides throughout the state. There was nowhere to go but up onto their roofs. Almost overnight Chennai had more than ten million people on the rooftops. All roads were closed. All schools. All government offices. All stores. There was no way to obtain food, medicines or blankets. Helicopters had the unenviable task of trying to feed millions of people stuck on their rooftops for days on end.
The campus at Rising Star Outreach was also flooding. All schools had been closed. The children couldn’t get home to their leprosy colonies because all roads were closed. All communication was down and the children were crazy with worry about their parents. Can you imagine having 265 children cooped up for days?
Our greatest concern was for the families in the leprosy colonies. I knew that they had no rooftops where they could seek refuge, as they lived in small huts. The colonies are in remote areas and I knew that the government would make little effort to help.
With all roads closed, our director, Dr. Susan sought a boat in an attempt to check on the situation, but all they could find was a rowboat. In her rowboat she went to visit as many colonies as possible. She reported that the situation was dire. Some colonies had as much as eight feet of standing water. The people had nowhere to go. They were stuck in water over their heads! They were starving—with many of them having gone for days without food.
But there was no money. You can’t spend money you don’t have. We put up an urgent plea on our website for assistance. A whopping $200 came in. We sent an email out to all our supporters begging for help.
One supporter saw the email and within minutes the family foundation and other family members contributed $45,000 in to the relief effort. This donation became a catalyst and people began to respond. Soon we had raised $70,000!
Dr. Susan now swung into high gear. They loaded the boat with food supplies, blankets, bandages and medicines. Over the next weeks they rowed to more than ten leprosy colonies, some of which were more than one hundred miles away!
I worried that the environment was very dangerous. Think of it—they were carrying hundreds of pounds of food through areas that were full of starving people. When I cautioned her about their safety she replied she was sure God would protect them. They were fearless!
They provided food and medical care to more than 3,000 people! Dr. Susan wrote me the following note after reaching the Villivakkam Colony. “The patients in the colony gave us hugs and were so happy for the assistance by way of medical help, rice, beans, and oil that we provided them. I have never seen them welcome us in this hearty manner before. They had gone many days without food. Many of the men who mostly would speak roughly were smiling and subdued.
In the last village a thin lady carrying a child had tears in her eyes when she thanked us for the medical camp, blanket and food supplies. We had struggled to load our supplies into a boat and reach their village. We carried all our materials in a tractor from the other side, along with the staff, and reached their school. Just looking at her careworn, sad face, I was sure that all the terrible stress that we have all been going through was worth it all, many times over.”
One of our Rising Star students, Beulah, was from the Cuddalore Colony, more than 100 miles away. Her family’s home had collapsed. Thanks to the relief money her colony was saved and her family home has now been rebuilt.
The mother of two of our students, Vijay and Raghu, had been involved in an auto accident due to the flood. She sustained a skull fracture, brain hemorrhage and contusions. They couldn’t get her to the hospital. Fortunately Dr. Susan got there just in the nick of time to get her to the hospital by boat. She is now recovering. Otherwise she surely would have died.
The mother of two other students, Mohanapriyen and Jagadeesh, was hit by a bus that was out of control in the flooding waters. Once again, Dr. Susan was able to get her to a hospital by boat and save her life.
All in all, more than 3,000 people were provided with food and medicines, in many cases saving their lives. And all this was made possible by the response of one woman who saw an email come in and decided to take immediate action, and another who took it upon herself to make a difference.
I am a firm believer in the power of one person to change the world!
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