Ten years ago Becky Douglas's life changed forever.
Her oldest daughter, Amber, lost her battle with bipolar disorder and took her own life while away at college. As a grieving Douglas sorted through her daughter's belongings, she discovered that Amber had been sending money to India to support an orphan. "I think because she suffered so much she had a real soft spot for others who suffered," Douglas recalls.
In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to the orphanage; so much money was collected that Douglas was asked to serve on the orphanage's board of directors. "I decided I'd better go to India to see first-hand what was going on," she says.
During her visit, Douglas found the orphanage to be clean and the children well cared for. "They actually had a lot by Indian standards," she says. But while driving through the city of Chennai, between the orphanage and her hotel, she was struck by the intense suffering of the beggars who assailed her car at every stop. Dirty and deformed, some with gaping wounds, these beggars were afflicted with a debilitating disease that Douglas thought was a thing of the past - leprosy.
"It's hard to admit, but it hurt to look at them," she recalls. "The suffering was palpable - I just wanted to turn away."
When Douglas returned home, she couldn't sleep. She kept seeing the image of one leprosy-affected woman, a young mother, who had crawled toward her car in Chennai. As Douglas rolled down the window to make sure their car wouldn't harm the woman as they pulled away, their eyes met. Those anguished eyes haunted Douglas, and she finally resolved that she would try to do something to help that woman. "I didn't even know where to start, but I had to do something."
She called four close friends, and together they created Rising Star Outreach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving leprosy victims in India and their children, who live with them in the leprosy colonies. But as the charity began to take shape and Douglas began to educate herself about the disease, she learned that in India people afflicted with leprosy lost much more than their health - they were treated as "untouchables," disowned by family members, and cast out of society because of the cultural stigma associated with the disease.
"Leprosy is considered to be the worst curse God can give a man," Douglas says. "It's a common belief that if you have this disease, you're being punished for a sin you committed in this life or a previous one."
Despite the fact that leprosy is curable and easily treated (in fact, the Indian government offers treatment free of charge), those afflicted with the disease are often too ashamed and afraid to seek treatment. They've been forced to abandon life as they know it to live in leprosy colonies on the outskirts of civilization and beg on the streets for survival.
To help leprosy victims and their families as much as possible, Douglas eventually determined that Rising Star Outreach needed to take a three-pronged approach: provide mobile medical care for people living in the colonies, create a safe learning environment for the children of leprosy patients, and offer micro business loans to help leprosy-affected individuals become self-sufficient. This formula has had great success, thanks in large part to the selfless volunteers who come from around the world to serve with Rising Star. "It will be the hardest work you've ever done, but when our volunteers come back, they feel like they have the power to change the world," Douglas says.
Mobile Medical Care Due to lack of resources and terrible living conditions, leprosy victims are often forced to use crude instruments in unsanitary conditions to treat their sores. But Rising Star is changing that by giving patients access to clean bandages and medications through its mobile medical clinic. A medical team makes visits to the leprosy colonies several times each month to properly care for wounds, treat other diseases such as tuberculosis and diabetes, and screen people for the beginning stages of leprosy. "If caught early on, a person can avoid any physical signs that he or she was ever afflicted with leprosy," Douglas says.
Volunteers also help leprosy patients care for their injuries. "Patients will sit on chairs while our volunteers wash their hands and feet," Douglas explains. "Leprosy patients don't have feeling in their extremities, so they often injure themselves, causing open sores or ulcers. Leprosy-affected people are treated as untouchables, but caring for their wounds requires a lot of touching," she continues. "There is a power to heal that is born from love and from touch."
Education Even if they are disease-free, the children of leprosy victims are also branded by the stigma and are forced to become street beggars like their parents. And because leprosy has a genetic aspect - only people with a positive component are susceptible to the disease - children of leprosy patients are in grave danger of contracting leprosy themselves. "Long-term exposure and poor living conditions put colony kids at much greater risk for developing leprosy," Douglas says.
But by providing colony kids a separate place to live and go to school, giving them nutritious meals, and teaching them proper hygiene, Rising Star Outreach has greatly reduced that risk. In addition, "the children at our schools learn computer skills and are taught English, which helps ensure their success in the future," Douglas says. "Indian companies will not hire them, but international companies don't care about the leprosy stigma. We're determined to take our kids and putting them at the top of Indian society by helping them become competitive in the international job market."
According to Douglas, there are almost two hundred children in Rising Star's elementary and secondary schools.
Micro Businesses For leprosy victims, street begging seems like their only option for survival. But thanks to Rising Star Outreach and their partnership with Padma Venkataraman, a well-known activist and daughter of a former Indian president, thousands of leprosy victims who were once beggars have been able to receive micro loans to build their own businesses.
"Business is a great vehicle to eliminate stigma and prejudice," says Douglas. "The stigmas kind of melt away when both parties are benefiting." As the micro loans are repaid, the money is loaned again to other families, giving even more leprosy patients the opportunity to enjoy a new way of life.
"Sadly, when you beg on the streets, the worse you look the more money you make," says Douglas. "It makes leprosy victims want to be the worst they can be. But when they start their micro businesses, they begin cleaning themselves up. The transformation, both inside and outside, is amazing."
*** What started as Becky Douglas's determination to continue her daughter's legacy of giving has turned into a thriving organization that is successfully breaking the tragic cycle of leprosy in India. "We've been invited to open up facilities in nearly every state in the country," she says. "It just goes to show that if you take the first step, God brings the world to you and you can do amazing things. Everyone can make a big difference."
To date Rising Star Outreach has helped more than twenty thousand people. Visit risingstaroutreach.org to learn how you can volunteer in India or help in another way.
--- Stay tuned on LDSLiving.com over August and September as Jamie Lawson documents her experiences of living and working alongside the leprosy victims of Rising Star Outreach.