"BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD." - M. GANDHI

Fish Stories: Lessons for a World Caught in a Grisly Pandemic

It was an eyesore and a health hazard. The pond of standing water in a low-lying area had become a mosquito factory, producing enough of these parasites to torment everyone in the leprosy colony. The waters were stagnant and murky. Mothers worried about their toddlers falling in. Several times ideas had been offered to drain it, but nothing ever came of them. When Suku arrived to oversee the Rising Star Outreach school at Little Flower, he saw the pond in an entirely different light. He looked at it as a great opportunity. He cajoled the local young boys to clean the worst parts of it. He requested just $66 to buy some small fishlings. The fish were delivered in time for the February Women2Women Volunteer session from the States to ceremoniously introduce the tiny creatures into the dark waters.

Gradually, the local mosquito problem began to ease as the growing fish gobbled up the mosquito eggs and larvae. Suku wisely installed a CCTV camera so that if anyone attempted to steal a fish, they would be seen and identified. To clean the pond and support the fish, the project has cost a mere $226 over the past five months.

Today, just five months later, the colony got its first harvest. Incredibly, the camera had done its duty. Not even a single fish had been stolen, even though the colony was experiencing an intense food shortage due to the Corona Pandemic. In fact, the entire Sunderpur colony was
dangerously on the edge of stark starvation.

There is a leprosy hospital in the Sunderpur colony. People come from hundreds of miles to this hospital to be cured of leprosy. I must say, it is one of the most pitiful “hospitals” I have ever seen. So why do they come? This hospital was established back in the 1980s by Father Christdas as he was trying to save the leprosy-affected from a pogrom in India’s desperately poor state of Bihar. He didn’t have enough money for doctors or nurses. Instead the patients at the Little Flower Hospital were treated by former patients who had been cured themselves. Over the years this hospital has treated 200,000 patients yet has never had a qualified doctor until the past few months when LEPRA partnered with Little Flower and finally provided a doctor.

Recently, because of the lockdown, Little Flower has struggled to provide sufficient food for the patients. Normally there are around 120 patients, but because of the Pandemic, there are currently only 45 patients. All new patients requesting admission are being turned away out of the fear of the spread of Covid-19. Even on the best of days, this hospital is dreary. Due to the poor air quality in Bihar, the windows are so dirty that hardly any light can filter into the room. In this remote location electrical power is quite unsteady, often running only a few hours a day. In the other hours, there is no light and even in the middle of the day the hospital is dark. But worst of all, when there is no electricity there are no working fans. Temperatures can reach well into the hundreds and in these dark rooms, packed with up to 20 patients, the heat becomes dangerously oppressive.

As food funds began to dry up, and as food stores were depleted during the pandemic lockdown, the food situation at the hospital became quite desperate. The patients were confined to eating only lentils for every meal. Rising Star doesn’t have control of this hospital, but it is close to our school and we do everything in our power to help out when possible. We worried that it would be difficult for these patients to heal without sufficient protein and other minimal nutrition.

But then this week we harvested the first catch of 10-20 kilos of fish. What a blessing it was! We donated it to the hospital and the patients had a delicious meal for the first time in weeks. It provided a rare moment of rejoicing at a grim time when there is not much good news. We are estimating that there are now a total of 300-350 kilos of fish remaining in the pond, worth around $900 were we to sell them in the local market! We can gradually harvest these fish over the next few weeks. Even if our school resumes with its 185 students returning and the hospital returns to 100 patients, we can still provide this excellent protein to both students and patients once a week for eight weeks! In the middle of a nationwide food crisis, this colony and its hospital patients are actually eating meat!!!

Best of all, the adult fish are now seeding future harvests with new fishlings. At another fish micro-business project years earlier overseen by our Chairman, Padma Venkataraman, another remarkable blessing was realized. At this time, the leprosy colony involved was also in dire straits, having no way to generate income other than begging. Padma introduced a number of water buffalo to the colony as individual families each were granted a loan to buy a water buffalo.

Water buffalo need water, but this particular colony had no access to water. There was a small pond nearby that was owned by another village. You’ve probably figured out that in India leprosy-affected people and non-leprosy-affected people have very little interaction. There is a terrible stigma attached to the leprosy-affected and villagers from other villages keep a distance.

In this case, the leprosy-affected, desperate to provide water for their water buffalo, asked the nearby village if their buffalo could use the pond to cool off. This village was frustrated with their pond. They had invested money to begin a fish hatchery but for some reason the fish
never produced any offspring and the project was dying. The colony offered to pay for access to the pond and the villagers figured, “Why not? We’re not making any other money on this pond!”.

Access was granted and the water buffalo began to finally get the needed coolness to survive the intense heat of the Indian summer. To the surprise of the villagers, the fish in the pond suddenly started to reproduce like crazy! It turned out that this particular breed of fish would only mate when the waters were stirred. Thus began a beautiful symbiotic relationship that has endured for many years, helping to erase the stigma of leprosy in this area as both villagers and colonists were benefiting from sharing the pond.

I think this is a beautiful example of how, by working together, stigmas can be eliminated, and all parties can be blessed. This pandemic is providing us just such an opportunity to lay aside our prejudices and reach out to others. In the end, we all benefit!

You can watch this video below about this wonderful fish project and hear from Mr. Suku himself, the project manager of this project and the Reginal Director over our northern India efforts.

Educating to Empower Youth in Leprosy-Affected Communities

Yesterday we commemorated the resilience of youth and their power to change the world by celebrating International Youth Day! This holiday, originally created to raise awareness about the issues faced by youth around the world, has special significance in the push for quality education accessible to all children. Rising Star Outreach has a firm understanding of the power of education, which is why it is one of the pillars used in our three-pronged approach to eradicating the effects of leprosy.

“Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality… ensuring access to quality education for all, in particular for the poor and rural population, is central to the economic and social development of India.” – World Bank

In honor of International Youth Day, we are shining light on the main development tool used for youth in India. You guessed it, education. It is well known that education increases earning potential and job opportunities, both of which are crucial for someone trying to escape poverty. Not only that, but education has the power to lift entire communities and even countries out of economically desperate situations!

“Education is an investment, and one of the most critical investments we can make.” USAID

Top international institutions, such as the United Nations, World Bank, and USAID, all agree that education is the investment that will turn the trajectory of a nation’s level of peace, equality, prosperity, and sustainability. In other words, education has a powerful effect on all fronts. With such large-scale and comprehensive output potential, it is no wonder why education has been deemed as an investment.

“The number of out of school children decreased from 25 million… to 8.1 million… Most of those still not enrolled are from marginalized social groups.” – World Bank

We commend all those who were involved with decreasing the number of children without schooling opportunities. We are also trying to do our part in reaching those marginalized youth, many of which are in the communities we serve. Leprosy colonies and neighboring villages are often some of the most impoverished areas in India and deemed to be the home of the lowest caste. Luckily, these children have not been forgotten. Our student population is constantly growing and a brand new campus in the northern regions of Bihar is in the making. 

With the help of generous sponsors and qualified staff members (almost entirely made up of individuals from India), Rising Star Outreach is able to provide quality education, nutritious meals, clean water, clothing, tutoring, and extra-curricular activities to at-risk youth in leprosy communities in the north and south ends of India.

“I call on leaders and adults everywhere to do everything possible to enable the world’s youth to enjoy lives of safety, dignity and opportunity and contribute to the fullest of their great potential.”  -António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

If you feel inclined to join our cause this International Youth Day, we invite you to visit our Sponsor a Child page. We would love to have you be a part of our task force that makes these life-changing provisions possible for some of the most remarkable youth you will ever meet.

The Power of an Unlikely Friendship

Two women from two different continents and cultures who found each other and changed the course of thousands of lives.

One of the driving reasons the mission of Rising Star Outreach has been so successful is the deep friendship that formed between two very different women of vastly different cultures. Becky was All-American; Padma was Indian to her core. Padma was dedicated to political and social reform; Becky was a Mitt Romney Republican.  Becky was dedicated to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Padma was a Hindu and just as dedicated to these beliefs and traditions. Still, their unity of purpose overrode their striking physical dissimilarities and life’s experiences.

Padma Venkataraman, is the daughter of a former president of India, Ramaswarmy Venkataraman. Her father was a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi, and as a young girl, Padma remembers meeting the great liberator of India. His great example inspired the path that she would take in life – serving the marginalized people of the world. Padma is a founding member of the Women’s India Association, an agency that has long led efforts to empower the women of the nation. During her years in Vienna, Austria, Padma was the permanent representative of the All IndiaWomen’s Conference to the United Nations. She put many things in place to assist the blind, handicapped, and differently abled persons in her country. In early 2008, she was honored by the International Leprosy Conference for her years of working with leprosy-affected families.
Padma is a soft-spoken, unassuming woman who rarely speaks of her background of influence and accomplishment. In a moment of true character, in a time of heightened terrorism, she was detained as she was leaving Britain. At first, she was vague about her reason for being in the country; she did not want to flaunt her influence. It was only reluctantly that Padma told the immigration officials that they could check with the person that had extended the invitation into the country for a palace visit – Queen Elizabeth II.
Becky Douglas, is the daughter of a middle-class family raised here in the United States with very conservative traditions. Becky is as rowdy as Padma is reserved. Her life is a marathon lived at sprint speed. She is bright, talented and very musical. She attended Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she also played with the Charlotte Symphony. A classical violinist, Becky has since played with the Atlanta Chamber Orchestra, the Atlanta, Opera, Atlanta Ballet, and has given numerous solo recitals around the United States. She is the mother of ten children – seven natural-born, two adopted from Lithuania and one adopted from India. She is an astounding teacher and speaker and has let nothing stop her from serving her fellowmen and helping those in need. 
 
Everything changed in 2004 when a Tsunami hit the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India where the fledgling Rising Star Outreach was just taking shape. Hundreds of people escaped the waves by fleeing to vacant lots by Padma’s house. She helped organize emergency relief efforts that brought food, clean water and cooking oil to refugees. During this time, Rising Star Outreach was organized in a little rented house on East Coast Road in Chennai, India. Only 27 children were enrolled and boarding for needed food and shelter. Devastation was everywhere. Families were torn apart. Parents lost their children and children were orphaned in the storm. Becky was horrified when she saw the news reports. She was anxious to know how the children were doing and how the people she had grown to know and love in the colonies were doing – had they survived? She was able to reach Rising Star’s general manager at the time, Mr. Gopi S. All was well at the school and the boarding home. No flooding. Everyone was safe, but there was great need in the colonies. Especially in the fishing kuppams along the coast. Gopi went out into the colonies to make deliveries of food and supplies to those in need and at the same time, Padma was making a visit. He saw her meeting with the women’s self-help group and going over the ledgers of micro-loans made to colony residents. Gopi introduced himself and told Padma that he thought she might enjoy meeting the lady that founded Rising Star Outreach – Becky Douglas.
 
Becky recalls getting a phone call from Padma. Padma asked if Becky wanted to form a partnership with her. Becky describes this phone call as Rising Star’s first big miracle. On a practical level, Padma was in need of additional sources of funding for her micro-lending programs and to provide relief to the victims of the tsunami, while Rising Star Outreach had a serious need for someone who could help get this budding charity to the types of programs that would make a lasting impact on the lives of those living with leprosy. Over the last 15 years, this friendship has been tested, strengthened, and has grown deeper. Both women have witnessed countless miracles and always give the credit to the hand of a higher power that they have seen heal, help, and bless thousands in need. And today, they have worked together to uplift thousands more during this COVID-19 pandemic. Belief in miracles is not required to see the convergence – the incidental friendship of Becky Douglas and Padma Venkataraman –  as an extraordinary event, not to mention the courageous and compassionate service given by these two extraordinary women.

Joining Forces To Provide Ongoing Covid 19 Relief Efforts To Leprosy Colonies

On March 24, 2020, India went into a complete lockdown with only four hours notice. The leprosy colonies were immediately plunged into dire circumstances to obtain food and medicines. Rising Star Outreach began to receive frantic calls from various colonies begging us for help. People from the leprosy colonies said they did not fear the virus nearly as much as they feared starving to death. India is now one of the hotspots for the virus and areas of the country are still under mandatory lockdown (including the region where our main campus is located).
Since the lockdown began, Rising Star Outreach’s team has been working tirelessly to provide support in the form of food, medicines, and wound care kits to members of over 170 colonies in 9 states across India. Over 1/3 of these are colonies that we have previously never been able to work with. Thanks to our partners like APAL, LEPRA, UNICEF, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we’ve been able to reach more people than ever before. Thus far, we have reached over 10,380 families — 52,320 individuals — with this relief effort, and the work is still ongoing. Our students are remaining at home with their families and we are preparing resources to allow them to maintain their education through remote learning as this pandemic continues.  Gratefully, to date we have not yet had a single case of COVID-19 in any of the colonies we work with or with any of our students or staff. This is a miracle to us.
We will continue to keep you updated on the situation. In the meantime, we just want to acknowledge that we could not have done this without our many partners and supporters, locally and abroad! Because of you, lives are literally being saved each day.  Please consider helping us during this time so that we can continue to provide these necessary services.
With thanks, the entire Rising Star Outreach family

Determined to See the Good as We Fight Back Against Coronavirus

The Coronavirus continues to run rampant in India. The numbers have continued to go up dramatically even though the entire country has been in a complete lockdown. In spite of that, the government is lifting the shutdown in most areas of the country. However, in Tamilnadu—particularly in the area of Kanchipuram—because of the rapid rise of contagion, the shutdown has been extended until June 30.

 

The hospital system in India is overwhelmed and many people who are very sick are not able to obtain lifesaving treatment, consequently, the death toll is very high.

 

We are very relieved and grateful to report that, up to this point, we have not had a single case of COVID in any of the leprosy colonies that we serve. This is a huge blessing! We are, of course, praying that this continues.

 

The lockdown has come with its own challenges. Due to the limited allowed movement, it has been very difficult for people to obtain sufficient food or medicine. The economy has been particularly hard hit with more than 100 million people losing their jobs.

 

Once we learned of the starvation that the members of the colonies were facing, Rising Star Outreach sprang into action. To date, we have supplied basic food and medicine to 176 colonies spread over nine states of India! We have delivered this assistance with the help of a number of partners who have rallied to the cause. Some have provided us with free transportation, the assessment of need, communication, and the actual delivery of the life-saving packets.   

 

Even our students have come together in many places to help us create these packets of food and medicine. It’s been really neat to see them rising to this challenge. It makes me happy to know that they want to do everything possible to help. They have learned their lessons of taking action and empowerment quite well!  Altogether, we have reached close to 50,000 people!

 

We are preparing to give a second round of food to the colonies in both Tamilnadu and Bihar. Both areas have seen very high contagion rates and so are subject to a continuing lockdown.

 

We’ve been so gratified for the many people who have generously rallied to this cause!  Without their tremendous support, none of this would have been possible.

 

Schools will likely continue to be shut down until the end of the year. For this reason, we are purchasing 75 tablets. We will give each colony where we have students from our school, access to one of these tablets, along with a hotspot, so that they can continue their studies online during the shutdown. 

 

Our teachers have been very busy working with our students online, as well as preparing for the following school year which begins this month. Each teacher is also working to keep WhatsApp chat groups going with all their students so that we can stay connected to the needs of their families.

 

These are crazy times!! We are so grateful for all of our sponsors!! In spite of tremendous job losses here in the United States, we have been particularly blessed to have our sponsors hanging in there with us. It’s been remarkable!! Our heartfelt thanks goes out to each one of you!

 

Gratefully,

Becky

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