On a recent phone call with Padma Venkataraman, she mentioned that she had a surprise photo for me. She told me I probably wouldn’t believe she had taken it this week. She sent the following photo, and she was right—I could hardly believe it.
Sixteen years ago, a terrible tsunami hit the Indian Ocean killing nearly 250,000 people across several countries. Rising Star Outreach jumped in immediately with tsunami relief. We replaced destroyed fishing boats and fishing nets for kuppams (fishing villages) which were the hardest hit segment of the society in India. In one kuppam alone, we replaced 87 fishing boats! With new boats and the replaced nets, the kuppams were able to return to their normal fishing business.
However, the fishing beds had changed as a result of the tsunami. Now the fishermen were being required to go further and further out to sea to find fish. This was particularly difficult for them because they had no coolers to keep the fish in, and in the hot Southern Indian sun, the fish would begin to spoil before they could reach the shore.
We worked directly with ten different kuppams along the Eastern coast of India. We suggested that they begin small micro-businesses to create a diversity of income. We created Women’s Self-help Groups in every village to administer these micro-loans. We made more than two thousand micro-loans to these groups. Many businesses were started, and as they began to flourish, this really helped the people.
However, after more than a year of doing this tsunami relief, we felt a need to return our entire focus to our main mission, which was to help lift the leprosy-affected. At that point, we had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars which we had raised for tsunami relief. Left in our tsunami fund was a little over $10,000.
When money is raised for a specific purpose, it has to be spent for that purpose. Therefore, in order to close out our tsunami account we needed to find a way to use that last $10,000. One very large fishing village with several thousand families asked Padma if there was any way we could provide them with coolers. They said, this would allow the fishermen to go further out into the sea to find the fish, and it would also make it possible for them to sell the fish further inland where they could get higher prices for their catch.
This seemed to be the perfect answer. We purchased 1,600 styrofoam coolers for about $6.50 each, which completely cleaned out our tsunami fund. Padma arranged a time for us to deliver the coolers to the Kuppam. On that day, we were greeted by more than a thousand people from the kuppam in their community center.
They had a beautiful program they had arranged for us including dances, dramas, singing and lots of awards. Every Women’s Self-help Group in the kuppam brought us the traditional Indian honorarium—a silk scarf. We were draped in multiple large leis of flowers reaching to our knees and multiple silk scarves, as there were more than a dozen Women’s Self-help Groups and each group took time to come and honor us in thanks for providing these coolers. The ceremony lasted for more than three hours!
Afterwards, we were hugged by hundreds and hundreds of the women in the kuppam as they tried to thank us for this gift. We were hugged and hugged for nearly another 45 minutes! It was pretty crazy—all this, for coolers worth $6.50! This level of gratitude for such simple gifts was almost surreal.
Fast forward sixteen years. Padma was in the fish market last week and saw this cooler with our logo on it. She asked the woman selling the fish where she had obtained the cooler. The woman’s face immediately lit into a smile and she told Padma that Padma herself had delivered it to her village sixteen years ago. It was still being used! It was still blessing the lives of that family!!!
Seeing this picture literally brought tears to my eyes. It brought back mental pictures of that village that had suffered so terribly during the tsunami, losing many of its fathers and sons to the deadly tsunami. Even children had been carried away by the destructive wave. Their village had been leveled, nearly every home completely destroyed. In the ensuing despair, and in the midst of complete, devastating destruction they had almost given up, but were encouraged by our coming. We brought hope and a means to support themselves.
I remembered the long and sweltering ceremony with the multiple flowers and silk scarves given in gratitude. I remembered the sweet hugs and tears of the women who thanked us so profusely for these simple gifts. And I was astounded that this little, cheap styrofoam cooler was still blessing that family.
To me, this was like a little message from God that great things are often the result of only small and simple things. I don’t believe I’ve ever spent $6.50 that has been more satisfying!
I have learned in life that everyone has to go through difficult trials. No one gets a pass to escape! It seems that during the most difficult of trials, sometimes the hardest thing to endure is not knowing—not knowing how long the trial will last; not knowing how it might end.
Those are the times that we have to dig deep within ourselves for conviction, for faith, and for strength.
I am reminded of a time early in our history that Rising Star Outreach was thrust into just such a situation. In order to bring foreign money into India you need to have an FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act) license. Issued by the government of India, these are not easily obtained. There is a requirement that you must wait a minimum of three years after organizing your charity, before you can even apply for this license. This means that you have to rely strictly on local funding for three years.
This is particularly difficult for a charity dedicated to serving families affected by leprosy. Leprosy carries a dreadful stigma in India, with many people even believing that it is a curse of God, given because a person is deserving of suffering as retribution for mistakes they may have made. To try to find sufficient funding in this atmosphere of stigma is nearly impossible.
Fortunately, there is the ability to get permission from the government to bring in foreign funding during this 3-year wait period ONE TIME, for a specific purpose. At Rising Star Outreach, we were very fortunate to be able to obtain one of these one-time permissions to bring in some funds. We used these funds to buy some land and build a school, which doubled as a dormitory for the students at night. We had just enough money left over to provide food for the children until the three-year waiting time was over.
Costs rose faster than expected and it became quite difficult to provide for the students and teachers as we neared the end of required three-year waiting time. We applied for our FCRA license well before this period ended, fully expecting to receive the license.
However, our resources were being pushed to the limit as the awaited time approached. Rations for the students and staff were cut. In several instances we were fortunately provided some food by local residents. We felt like we were limping to the finish line. Then the unthinkable happened.
The deadline came and passed without hearing any word from the government. Each day became a trial of faith, just to get enough food to feed the students at the school along with the teachers and housemothers. Finally, we ran completely out of money and food.
Our director in India wrote to me to say that we needed to send the children home, or they would starve. But the catch was, if we did not have a functioning school, we could not receive our FCRA license.
This was one of the most desperate circumstances in my life, as I sat staring at my computer after receiving that letter, not knowing exactly how to reply. I had prayed relentlessly during these past few months for our FCRA license to come through, but weeks and weeks were going by with no response from the government.
As I sat in a stupor, without a clue as to the best path forward, the light began to fade from the room. I had been sitting there for more than an hour, and evening was now approaching. I knew that our director would be anxiously awaiting my response.
So many little lives hung in the balance of my decision! So many years of work to create a chance for these kids and to give them and their families a hope for a better future. I felt a 500-pound weight weighing down on my chest.
Slowly, I finally began to type. “Do not send the children home. Dig up worms if necessary, but don’t send the children home.” I stared at those words for what seemed like forever. My room was now almost completely dark. With a lump in my throat, I finally pushed send.
The next morning, I booked the first flight I could get to India. I packed my bags with packaged food, knowing that it wouldn’t even be enough for one day, as we had more than 150 students. But I felt driven to go and be with these children and leaders I loved so much.
When I arrived in India at 6:00 in the morning, after traveling a day and a half, I dropped into my bed to try to get at least a couple hours of sleep before heading out to our little school. I slept longer than expected, and at 8:00 AM I received a call telling me that I needed to get to the school immediately.
I quickly showered, dressed and ran out without breakfast. My car was waiting. During the two-hour drive to our campus, my heart was heavy, and I kept trying to focus on what I could possibly say to the children and their teachers. But the truth was, I didn’t have any idea what I could say.
When I arrived at the campus, I noticed that everyone was gathered in front of the school/dorm. The children seemed excited There was a banner on the wall. Due to the architecture of the school I could only make out the first three letters, “C-O-N. . . “As I ascended the steps to the main landing the children all started jumping up and down, clapping and laughing. Two children pulled at each of my hands to make me hurry my steps until I could see the entire sign. It read, “Congratulations on the FCRA!”.
I looked speechlessly at our director, who now was also smiling and clapping. “We got it?” I asked breathlessly. “Yes! Yes! Yes!!” everyone shouted. Tears were stinging my eyes. “But how . . .?” One of our older kids stepped forward and said, “Becky auntie, in India we have a great tradition of fasting taught to us by Mahatma Gandhi. We students decided to have a fast and ask God to give us the license. We got a call this morning from the government to inform us that the license had been granted and our formal license will soon arrive.” At this point, I was also laughing with the students through my tears.
Not every trial ends up with a happy ending, but just finding the strength to endure however long the trial may last, is what I seek. On days when it seems my current trial seems to be lasting forever, I can remind myself of the time we waited seemingly forever to get news that we had received an FCRA license. Every day during that time, we feared for the well-being of our students that we loved so dearly. The wait was agonizing. Not knowing the outcome was even more agonizing.
I have no idea how long the Covid-19 trial may last, but I’m guessing that most of us have an experience we can look back on that may help us muster the strength to go on through this trial. One thing I do know for sure, is that God is aware of little leprosy-affected children in a remote village in India who needed a license to continue their schooling and He is most certainly aware of each of us as we struggle, not only to endure, but to even find blessing in this journey. May you find strength in those memories and may peace and health be with each of you!
In India, the number one way most families get basic groceries and supplies is by making a daily trip to the nearest village market instead of a grocery store. That custom has been interrupted by the Coronavirus as it continues to limit accessibility to food and other vital supplies. The Indian government has put a lockdown order in place, keeping everyone from leaving their homes. Many people take home and live on daily wages so while they are unable to work, they aren’t earning their day-to-day income. As you can imagine, this situation has made feeding their families increasingly difficult for the people in India. In an effort to help, the government has collected food from stores and markets to then ration and deliver to families so they don’t have to leave their homes.
However, the individuals living in leprosy colonies can often end up on the bottom of those delivery lists. This means they face being last to receive whatever little food is left, or worse, there won’t be any food left at all and they will go hungry.
The leaders of Rising Star Outreach of India know that people affected by leprosy are all too often forgotten, so instead of idly waiting to watch history repeat itself, they decided to act, and act they did. Determined to lift the community through an additional trial, leaders put a plan into place to engage local resources and partner with government agencies to make sure people in the leprosy colonies receive food and medical supplies that will see them through the lockdown order.
Mrs. Padma Venkataraman, Rising Star Outreach of India Board Chairman, said the following about their planning meeting. “This afternoon’s session was full of positive energy…God be with us to make this dream come true and we will be able to feed so many people at this hour of great challenge.”
Relief packages were assembled and include items such as rice, dahl, wheat flour, lentil, cooking oil, salt, chili powder, masala, soap, and other essential supplies. These packages are expected to feed families for 1.5 to 2 weeks. These relief packages are being safely delivered to the homes of those in 41 Tamil Nadu colonies and 21 Bihar colonies. In the first phase of support, relief packages are expected to be in the hands of thousands of families, including those of our students.
Doctors have had to limit physical contact while observing social distancing and curfew. To ensure leprosy-affected patients are still receiving the treatment they need, wound-care kits and medications are also being safely distributed. Attached to each kit is a note from our National Medical Director with her personal phone number and instructions to call her with any questions, concerns, or needs.
A Rising Star Outreach of India employee made the comment that while it is still a time of uncertainty, the Rising Star Outreach of India team is continuing to care for the individuals and families that need support and are “giving them the mental courage” to press on.
We are blown away by the swift response of our Rising Star Outreach of India team! This was all made possible through their efforts and care for the people they devote their time to. The love they have for the leprosy-affected is profound and moves them to act on their belief that all life is equal and everyone deserves to live healthy, productive lives.
It was nineteen years ago when our founder, Becky Douglas, went to India in search of hope. It was there that she found a large community of people searching for that very same thing. Soon after her return home, she and four other humble but eager women founded Rising Star Outreach around her kitchen table to form Rising Star Outreach. That small gathering of friends was the initial drop that has since resulted in an incredible tidal wave of change. On February 20, 2020, Rising Star Outreach hosted another important gathering of friends, our first-ever Gala to celebrate giving and to honor our great supporters, the Marriott family. That night, Becky and Sharon Thompson, one of the founding women, had the opportunity to sit in a room filled with generous and equally eager people who believed in a vision they had years ago.
It was a beautiful evening filled with bold gestures and commitments to change lives. There was a strong spirit of unity as over 500 people joined together for a single cause. It was breathtaking to see the room filled with leaders from business, government, religion, and society come together to focus their attention on serving the “untouchables” – the leprosy affected – and through that showing their knowledge and belief that those friends are not untouchable, rather that we are all equal.
So many wonderful items and services were donated by members of our community who felt inspired to donate their skills and resources. Our guests generously bid on those items before moving into the main hall for dinner. The silent auction room was buzzing with excitement as guests placed their bids on their favorite items and bonded with each other over the act of giving.
After connecting with each other over a lovely meal, we had the pleasure of presenting the Rising Star Outreach Legacy of Giving Award to members of both sides of the Marriott family. We were honored to have representatives from these families in attendance, so that we could celebrate with them this powerful partnership and their legacy of giving. We were then privileged to hear from Dick Marriott regarding this shared cause and the caring values that united us all. His words were powerful and his message was inspiring. We were all left with an even greater desire to give and help others. We are continually grateful for the Marriott family’s brilliant example of selflessness and service.
Continued support from the Marriott Family has been empowering. The vision goes on and is largely due to the confidence and hope the Marriott family has had in our organization.
During the evening, we were dazzled by Tony & Emmy Award Winner, Kristin Chenoweth, and the Gentlemen Trio, GENTRI, who focused their talent on touching and inspiring hearts. Their words and music connected us all as we remembered the purpose of the evening. They also charmed us with their wit and humor and brought another level of joy to the evening as we laughed together.
Talent spilled over into our live auction and paddle raise when the genius auctioneer, Chuck Dukas, took his place on stage. The energy in the room crescendoed as paddles were raised high into the air, each one symbolizing a pledge to make a real change in the life of someone in India. Each pledge was paid in a currency not of money, alone, but hope as well.
We were already blown away by the generosity of all in attendance, when we were overcome to learn that someone in the audience had felt so moved by the messages and spirit that evening that they pledged an additional $1 million to support vaccinations and health in India. Our wish is that everyone will experience the joy that all those present felt when we realized that this one night would change countless lives of the people we love and serve in India.
The impact of that one night will be remembered forever by the people that were present but more so by the people who weren’t – the people whose families will benefit for generations.
Over $2 million was raised, most of which was raised in a matter of just a few hours. These funds will help cover the cost of vaccinations, medical treatments, teacher salaries, microloans for entrepreneurs, a new school campus and programs in Bihar, and other wonderful resources that will empower those who are affected by leprosy to rise above stigma and live healthy, productive lives.
Becky shared, “I’m still a little breathless every time I think of the gala! It almost feels surreal to me. I don’t think any of us in our very wildest dreams ever could have predicted that outcome.”
At Rising Star Outreach, we believe that there is a special power in the work that we do and that we are stronger together. However, we are still in awe of the power of that strength.
Thank you to everyone who has believed in us from the beginning. Thank you to all of our new supporters, as well, and to members of the growing Rising Star Outreach family. Thank you to those who attended our Gala and to those who were there in spirit. Thank you to those who donated goods and time to help make this gala such a success. Thank you to our dedicated board members. Thank you to those who donated time, energy, and resources to make the gala as special as it was. Of course we want to say a special thank you to the Marriott family for your kind and humble example of giving.
Thank you for your support and love. We could not have done this without any of you. We are so excited to see where we will be in another 19 years and are thrilled we will have you by our side to celebrate our victories along the way!
Photos courtesy of photographer, Breanna White.
The true-life story of the youngest patient in a long-term leprosy hospital who loves to serve and help other leprosy affected patients while he is also getting treatment. #helpingwhilehealing #healingwhilehelping
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Fran then reached up to feel if the rough spot on his face had gone down during the night. It hadn’t. Was it possible that the skin was even a little more raised? Eyes completely open now, Fran jumped up and sidled into the kitchen where his mother was already awake and beginning preparations for breakfast. Fran rubbed the lid of the small pot his mother sometimes used until he could see his reflection. Leaning in, he checked his reflection in the lid. The red spot on his face did not appear to be going away.
His mother saw him and observed, “it’s the same, my son—except it’s growing bigger.” She weighed her next words carefully. “Maybe we should go to the hospital and get it checked.” Fran’s eyes widened. Hospital? For a small spot on his face? He felt uneasy about his mother’s words—he felt there was something his mother was not telling him. An unspoken word hung in the air. Leprosy. Surely his mother did not think this spot could be the dreaded leprosy?
Fran shook his head back and forth vigorously; an emphatic NO! But his mother was now eying him even more closely. “This afternoon,” she said. “We will get it checked this afternoon.”
Poor people in Bihar, India don’t normally go to doctors. The truth is, almost none of them have a family doctor. If they have a medical need that they can’t cure at home, they go to the hospital. A trip to the hospital can consume hours, often nearly half a day or more. That was the case this time. After what seemed an interminable wait, Fran’s turn finally came.
The doctor initially seemed gruff and exhausted. Nearly every day he felt overwhelmed with the endless lines of people needing his attention. His manner could be short and curt. But as he looked at the patch of raised skin on Fran’s face, he felt a cold dread run through him. This certainly looked like it could be a spot of leprosy. The doctor sent a biopsy for the lab to analyze.
The next time the doctor met with Fran and his mother, his demeanor seemed to have changed. Knowing how the entire family would be affected, he almost gently delivered the dreaded results. Fran had leprosy. For many in India, this dreaded word was not only felt like a death sentence, it carried the weight of a devastating social stigma—one that could affect the standing of the entire family.
Unfortunately, the small clinic/hospital that Fran had gone to didn’t have the means to treat Fran. He would need to seek out other treatment. “But where?”, the anxious mother asked desperately. The doctor shrugged. Most hospitals were not willing to or were unable to treat leprosy. There was a little hospital many miles away in a place called Little Flower that could possibly help him. It was clear up at the top of Bihar, nearly to the border with Nepal. The doctor cautioned that even if there was room for Fran at that hospital, treatment could take up to a year.
For a family of extremely limited means, such a long trip would be difficult. But after heavy reflection, Fran’s mother felt like she had no other option. Fran’s father had died many years earlier and the mother was left with nine children to raise. Fran was the sixth. She would need to ask neighbors to watch the younger brother and sister while she made the arduous journey. She didn’t dare tell the neighbors why she had to go so far, as she feared they would refuse to allow her children into their home.
Finally, all arrangements were made and after offering prayers, Fran and his mother set off for Little Flower in Sunderpur, India. The mother’s unease was increased even more when finally arriving in Sunderpur, she was informed that Little Flower was actually in a leprosy colony. The thought of entering a leprosy colony sent chills of fear down her spine. After coming all this way, she almost felt her courage desert her.
But a mother’s love engenders courage that otherwise would be unthinkable. Holding Fran’s hand firmly, she led him through the leprosy colony and to the little hospital that would hopefully give them the hope that they were so desperately seeking.
Entering the dark hospital ward, Fran’s mother almost gasped in disbelief. This was a hospital? It was nothing but a long room with beds lined up on both sides. The beds were filled with older men, some of them with disconcerting deformities. They stared at the boy dolefully. Many of them had been there sitting on their beds, receiving treatment for leprosy for many months. For some of them, the treatment had taken more than a year.
It was August and the room was stifling hot. There were no working fans, in fact, there didn’t seem to be any electricity; the room was dark even though the sun was blazing outside. (the hospital only has power about two hours a day). Fran’s mother noticed that the windows were so darkened with soot and dirt, they let very little light in.
Finally, the “doctor” examined Fran. He wasn’t a real doctor; only a former leprosy patient who had been healed at the hospital and was now trying his best to help others, in spite of his lack of training. Fran’s mother insisted that he see a real doctor. The examiner shook his head sadly, I’m sorry, but we have no doctor. I’m the best that we have. But the good news is, I think we can cure your son with daily doses of multi-drug therapy. To leave her beloved son in these conditions seemed impossible to the mother. But in the end, having no other alternative she hugged him to her and with tears running down her face, told him her prayers would be with him. Then she left. Fran had never felt so alone.
This was August 2018. Now 12 years old, Fran has been receiving treatment during the past year at the hospital. When I asked our volunteer at Little Flower how Fran was doing, this is what she wrote,
Fran is seen as a light in the hospital. He is the youngest long-term patient at the hospital and given that the leprosy is on his face, he is completely mobile. This allows him to help the other patients, move around the hospital and interact with the staff and visitors regularly. You can often find Fran in the Rising Star Outreach dressing room where he helps other patients with wounds on their feet and legs get to the room and then to the dressing tables where they have the wounds cleaned and bandages changed.
He is often a leader when volunteers come to sing and dance with the patients in the hospital and has the biggest smile and most joyous laugh for a child in his condition.
There was recently severe flooding in the colony. Fran spent hours helping other patients move their belongings to the second floor of the hospital, so they were safe and dry. He also assisted helping displaced villagers get their belongings to the second floor of the hospital so they, too, were safe and dry. He was soaking wet but did not stop until everyone was helped. This is the kind of person Fran is!
We’ve asked our volunteers to tutor Fran every day so that he doesn’t get further behind in his studies. As soon as the patches on his face have gone down, he will be enrolled in the Little Flower School, currently being run by Rising Star Outreach. Given this young man’s determination to make something of his dreams, along with the support and love of his family, we expect him to be an enthusiastic and successful student. With the excellent education offered by Rising Star Fran now has the opportunity to not only improve his own life, but with the possibility of college training now available to him, he can one day return and raise the living conditions of his entire family.
A former Executive Director at Rising Star Outreach, Amy Antonelli, once commented to me that she felt that perhaps that leprosy in the family has turned out to be the greatest advantage these children’s lives could possibly have because it makes them eligible for our programs. With our school graduates going on to pharmaceutical college, medical college, engineering college, and other great careers, these students will have the opportunity for a shot at life that very few children in their original villages will have.
I have reflected on Amy’s words many times. We can often feel picked on, and even beaten down, by life’s challenges. Yet, there are times when those challenges become blessings in disguise. If we can learn to view our challenges as God views them, perhaps we can find the courage to face them and go forward in faith. And as in Fran’s case, if we can learn to see other people as people of unlimited potential, instead of defining them by their challenges, I believe we begin to see them as God sees them. Only then are we able to treat them as God would have us treat them.
Oh, if we could only learn to see as God sees! Each one of us are children of glorious eternal parents. To our Heavenly parents, each child—each life—has equal value. If we could treat each other with this one simple truth in mind, the world would be a different place today.
Article Originally Posted at Meridian Magazine on September 26, 2019; The Boy Who Discovered He Had Leprosy
You can be apart of the #HelpingWhileHealing motto that Fran embodies with his light and service to others. Donate to Rising Star Outreach non-profit today and help heal those affected by leprosy like Fran.Donate! Don’t Wait!
Rising Star Outreach helps empower the leprosy-affected by providing quality education opportunities, medical treatments, and programs to promote community development, skill development, and employment opportunities. Learn more about our programs and continuing efforts here.
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