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.

Rising Stars by Julia Sawatzky

Following our daily colony visits, RSO’s mobile medical clinic returned every afternoon to the Rising Star campus where their main medical office is located. The visits to the campus allowed me to experience (and fall head-over-heels for) another aspect of Rising Star’s approach to long-term change for the leprosy-affected: the Peery School for Matriculation. This Kindergarten to Grade 12 boarding school, a.k.a. the Peery School for Rising Stars, allows children from the leprosy colonies supported by RSO unprecedented access to high quality, supportive academic education. This education is what will shape their futures and truly help them to rise out of poverty, discrimination and social isolation. The whole school is absolutely bursting at the seams with the liveliness, joy and enthusiasm of its students and I miss it with my whole heart:
As I said, BURSTING with joy.

Academic Education

The creation of a school at RSO was neccessary because stigma and discrimination, combined with abject poverty and an inability to pay school fees, has long kept children of the leprosy-affected (even if the children themselves don’t have leprosy) out of government schools. This year is actually only the 2nd year in which the Peery School has been able to offer Grades 11 and 12, and this is a good example of just how dire the situation was beforehand. Prior to last year, students who finished Grade 10 at the Peery School were supposed to go on to government schools and RSO would pay their school fees. This proved, however, to be nearly impossible. The headmaster at the local government school claimed that if he accepted children from leprosy-backgrounds, wealthy parents at the school would take their children elsewhere and that this would cripple the school’s finances and reputation. THEN, when RSO tried another avenue and attempted to establish their own 11th and 12th Grades, the government education department demanded staggering bribes – again showcasing the poisonous attitude and immense resistance towards allowing leprosy-background children to become educated. It simultaneously makes me sick to my stomach and brings tears to my eyes to think of what these innocent, glowing faces are up against:
But yet, there is hope. I got blasted with huge doses of it (hope, that is) as I looked around and realized everything the Peery School at Rising Star has achieved so far. That these students are being educated in English, with Tamil and Hindu classes so that they might one day have access to jobs all over India and the world. That high school students receive training from St. John’s Ambulance to become advocates for health in their own communities and wherever they go. That all of the school’s students go on to post-secondary education, with the majority (apparently) aspiring to go on and become engineers and doctors.** Doctors who, educated at RSO, will know and compassionately understand the reality of leprosy, allowing them to tackle both the disease and the stigma and bring an end to this heart-wrenching public health dilemma. Hope.
**Side note: This science bias, apparently, comes from a rather unfortunate situation in India in which there are disproportionately more jobs and opportunities in the sciences than in the humanities. The school’s principal told me it would be almost impossible for the children from the Peery school to pursue a career in the arts, so their parents and communities often encourage them to study the sciences in order to have a more secure, sustainable future. This is not at all ideal or fair and I could write a lot more about the importance of the arts and humanities and all my passion for them, but let’s tackle one unfair topic at a time here, folks. Let’s focus for now on how WONDERFUL it is that these students have access to university education at all, growing up in a system that is so relentlessly against them!
With some of the incredible teaching staff of the Peery School and the principal (far right)!
So, back to hope. Hope like the brother and sister duo, who graduated from the Peery School, that are now being supported by RSO through a PhD in Computer Science and a BSc in Nursing, respectively. Hope like a changing situation in which women and low-caste Indians are receiving government support in higher education and where specific places are being reserved for them in various institutions. Hope like imagining these kiddos could one day wind up in those institutions and change their own country from within, as their own advocates:


 Student Life

Students live at the school because of the remote and wide-spread distribution of the colonies. However, there has actually been some recent integration of children from the nearby community into the school, with priority given to children living below the poverty line. The boarding students live in hostels, one for girls and one for boys, with live-in hostel mothers to support and care for them. This results in a bit of an “emotional famine,” as the managing director called it, with such young children living away from home and missing out on the one-on-one love a parent can offer a child.  So, it was often nice on my free time in the evenings to go out and play with these youngsters, offering as many of them as I could a rare slice of someone’s full attention:
A “classic gap yah” photo, probably, but who I am to deny a kid a high five??
With that said, there is a LOT more than academics going on at this school to give students a well-rounded, wholesome experience.

One of my absolute favourite afternoons, for example, was spent observing the 2-hour-long classical Indian dance classes that are held daily to allow interested students to learn the dance of their cultural heritage and, in the process, exercise their minds and bodies (this dance is complex and strenuous, let me tell ya!!):
Classical Indian dance class!
Classical music classes are also offered after school AND a ridiculously amazing Life Skills class that I had the joy of visiting, in which students can learn how to use sewing machines and all sorts of other simple tools to make gorgeous crafts. They are being taught to sell what they make in a small-scale business, altogether fostering their creativity, practical skills and entrepreneurial spirit. Through this awesome combo of art therapy and extracurricular learning, we can expect no more begging for these gals!

Look at these amazing CD candle holders I bought from the Life Skills girls! The decorations are all rolled up paper… innovative and gorgeous.

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.

Then, there’s my ULTIMATE FAVE: LifeDance. Through a collaboration with Promethean Spark International, an insanely inspiring organization that aims to teach life skills through dance to youth worldwide, students up until Grade 10 at the Peery School get dance classes as part of their school curriculum. Especially keen students can join LifeDance, an audition-based performance dance group that rehearses every day after school. Several times while at Rising Star I got the chance to join in on their classes and experience first hand how dance (one of my personal truest loves – if you know me well, then you’ll know) so flawlessly empowers and inspires these kids. It encourages them to push themselves, express themselves, stretch their limbs and their limits, be creative, collaborative, uninhibited, bold, passionate, engaged and confident. I really don’t have the words for how spectacular I find this art/advocacy combo and its ability to give a meaningful voice to a marginalized group of people who, for so long, have not been allowed one. So, in place of words, you’d better watch this video of the kids busting their moves (Skip to 12:20!!):
I have all the love in the world for these students and the people who have invested their time and talents in making this possible for them. We simply can’t afford to ever underestimate the power of the arts in social change, OR education, for that matter. Can you see now why I’m so ridiculously enamoured with this school??
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A 100 Dresses for India by Laura Lofgreen

These last six months as I’ve been working on the coloring book My 100 Daughters, I’ve looked through many photographs of the girls of India.
Eden is at the bottom there because she’s donating her dresses to the girls of India.
The girls I’m drawing are growing up in the leprosy colonies.  The girls do not have leprosy, but their parents or parent does. They have experienced hunger, loneliness and poverty like I will never understand.  They are considered “untouchables”.  Children who grow up in the leprosy colonies are not allowed to attend school, but it’s not like their parents could afford to send them anyway.  Most children take to begging and do anything they can to survive.  Even their shadows are considered cursed. Rising Star Outreach is changing all of this.
As I’ve researched the photographs, traditions, landscape and customs of India, I noticed the older girls wear the traditional India saris, but the younger girls do not.  I asked Amy at Rising Star why this is.  She said as a girl matures into a young woman, she is required to wear the customary shawls to cover her bosom.
It is a form of modesty. Until then, the little girls can wear the same type of dresses my daughter does.
Many little girls literally wear rags.  They deserve better.  I’m hoping you’ll help the girls of India by donating gently used dresses for girls age 12 and younger.
Drop them off at my house or mail them to Rising Star Outreach 3305 N University Ave #250, Provo, UT84604.
I hope to collect/donate 100 dresses for Rising Star Outreach India by October 11, 2017 – The International Day of the Girl.
My 100 Daughters will be released October 11, 2017 and will be available on Amazon.
I have partnered with Rising Star Outreach and 50% of the proceeds will go to India.  Please consider sponsoring a girl today.  It costs just $1.00 a day.  Call (801) 960-9620 and say you’d like to contribute to the 100 Daughters fund.
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“Wonderful” by Susie Clawson

I stepped off the bus and ran up to Saleema to say hello – what a wonderful moment – like seeing an old friend, even though I’d only met her once before. Before I knew it, several of my younger students came running up to me, giggling and calling my name, “Su-see, Su-see!” and hugged me real tight.

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.

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