This story first appeared for Meridian Magazine on January 7, 2018
It was only a pre-school, but we were unbelievably excited to actually be opening a school for the leprosy-affected in Southern India. We would start with a preschool—children only 3-5 years old. I knew that the leprosy colonies were spread miles and miles apart which meant that the children would have to stay overnight at the school. A boarding school for preschoolers—I had never heard of such a thing and wondered if parents would really be willing to leave their 3-5-year-old children there for months on end.
The small house we rented had a tiny bedroom for a headmaster and one other small bedroom. On the floor, if we put a mat that extended from wall to wall, we figured we could squeeze 27 children onto the mat, if they slept shoulder to shoulder. But would there be 27 toddlers whose families were willing to have them live away from home? I wasn’t sure. . .
The morning that we opened up registration we were completely unprepared for the onslaught of families and children wanting to enroll in the school. By noon, the places were all filled and already there were one hundred children on the waiting list.
There is apparently a grapevine amongst the beggars on the street. Somehow word had gotten out that somewhere in India a pre-school was opening that would admit children from the leprosy colonies. The response was unexpected and overwhelming.
The families and children continued to come. By the time we shut down registration that evening there were more than 200 children on the waiting list. The next day it began all over, but this day they began to arrive from all over India: Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore. Over the next few days they continued to pour in, with one man and his son even coming from New Delhi, which is clear across the country. By now we had quit numbering the waiting list.
Two days later I happened to be in a leprosy colony with our medical clinic. I was surprised to see a young five-year-old child sitting in the dirt crying forlornly. The people in the colony just seemed to walk past him as if he were not there. When I asked the Colony leader what was happening, he told me it was a very sad story. He said, “The boys’ father brought him from New Delhi to try to put him in the Rising Star Outreach pre-school but there was no room for him. The father didn’t have enough money to get his son home on the train to New Delhi, so he brought him here and asked us to look after him. The father has gone back to Delhi to beg and try to get enough money to come get his son.” The leader shook his head sadly and continued, “The problem is that we don’t have enough room or food for our even own children. No one is willing to take him. He’s just been sitting in the dirt crying for the last two days.”
I was aghast! A little kindergartener sitting abandoned in the dirt for two days—nothing to eat and no roof over his head, but people passing him by as if he didn’t exist? I ran to him and gathered him up in my arms. I knew there was no room for one more child on our sleeping mat, and also that there were hundreds of children ahead of him on the waiting list. But I also knew that I could not leave him in the dirt to die. “Don’t worry, we’ll find room for him at Rising Star,” I heard myself saying.
I brought little Arun back to the hostel. For the next two days, he never stopped crying. I held him in my arms while I rushed around trying to get things ready for the school to start. There were so many things to do! The children all had to be screened for leprosy. They had shown up with ringworm, scabies, lice, parasites—even hoof and mouth disease. But the worst was the scabies. The patches on the skin had to be scraped until the skin was rubbed off and the eggs exposed. It was painful and very traumatic for the children. When we’d say, “Ooh dear, I think this is scabies,” the children would immediately begin to plead pitifully, “No, no Auntie. Not scabies! Not scabies!” But there was no choice other than to treat all these things. With the children sleeping shoulder to shoulder, the chance of one infection being passed to the entire group was inevitable unless every case was treated.
Anytime I put Arun down for even a second he wailed and sobbed uncontrollably. The trauma of his perceived abandonment by his father had shaken him to the core. I was beginning to wonder if he was going to make it or not. Then, inexplicably on the third day he began to settle down a bit. He still spent most of his waking time on my lap, but as the week wore on, he gradually began to engage with the other children.
During the next few years, Parents’ Day was the hardest time for Arun. We had designated one Saturday each month as Parent’s Day. The parents would come from miles away to visit their children. They would come bearing sweet gifts of food (often spoiled from the heat of the journey) and inexpensive plastic toys or beads. This was a time of happy reunions, with lots of hugging and smiles.
Arun’s parents were obviously unable to travel across India for Parents’ Day. Feeling terribly left out, Arun would hide in the hostel and silently cry, and not emerge until all the parents had left that evening. Once we realized what was happening, we gave him the responsibility of being in charge of the lunch and getting everyone organized to be fed. This seemed to make him feel more a part of things, but truthfully my heart still ached for him when I’d see him on Parent’s Day, wistfully watching the other children with their parents.
Fast forward to this past April. I happened to be in India for the end-of-the-school-year Awards Ceremony. I was so thrilled to see that Arun received three awards for the twelfth grade: the best academic performer, the best sportsman, and the leadership award. My, how he had grown and changed! He was now confident and stood tall and erect. He was visibly proud as he walked forward to the stage three times to be honored. And I was so proud I could hardly stand it!!
He has accomplished so much! He will go on to college and I’m sure he will excel there as well. He has been taught that he is a child of God with inherent talents and abilities. He has much to offer the world! He has learned to dream and has worked hard to achieve his dreams. What a huge change from the little boy abandoned in the dirt with no hope!
These are the days that I say to myself, “In spite of all the challenges, there is nothing in the world I would rather be doing!”
It’s so easy for us to look at a little dirty beggar child and think that they are useless. We write them off mentally as worthless. But they are each one, the bearer of unique and wonderful gifts that only need opportunity to be developed. The same is true of the homeless, the drug addicts, the prostitutes.
I have a friend whose two sons work with people such as these in Las Vegas. They canvas the streets searching for the down and out, the discouraged, the hopeless. Convinced that every person has unfathomable divine potential, they patiently work with them, until the person begins to believe that they have inestimable eternal worth and unlimited potential. The transformation can take months, even years, but each one reclaimed is a beloved lost sheep of God’s.
When we see people who have been bruised by life and seem to have fallen, let’s reserve judgment. Instead, let us offer a hand of love and of fellowship; a hand of hope. Who’s got time to judge? There’s too much work to be done!
Note: In spite of the separation and great distance, Arun’s family is still connected to him. They have stayed in touch as much as possible and have even visited the campus a couple of times as their circumstances have allowed.
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.
Susila lives in the Bharatapuram leprosy colony with her husband. Her husband is a leprosy affected patient and because of his disabilities, she has been the sole provider for fifteen years.
After receiving loans, training, and support to grow her business, she’s learned how to manage money, increase her sales, and support her family.
She sells perfume, incense, candles, rice cakes, and chutney. She’d like to thank all those that have supported her business which enables her family to live a better life and get an education . She does not read or write, but she has now made it possible for her children to read and write.
Jennifer was just a toddler when she began to show the signs and symptoms of leprosy. Discarded and abandoned by her parents as a baby, she was rescued by her grandfather even though he was suffering severe effects from leprosy. He was determined that she have a better life, and so he entrusted Jennifer to our care.
Luckily for Jennifer, the leprosy was caught early, so she was easily cured with just one packet of a multi-drug therapy. It is heartbreaking to think what would have become of her life without the intervention of her grandfather and that one packet of medicine.
Now Jennifer is getting ready to graduate this year. She is hoping to get one of the medical scholarships offered to our students who qualify for medical school. She wants to be an eye surgeon so that she can treat the many leprosy patients who suffer from eye problems – just like her grandfather.
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