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We have visited some of the earth’s toughest places, traversed in 85 countries, but this trip to Bihar on the border of India and Nepal would turn out to be the worst living conditions for people we had ever seen. It’s a place wracked with poverty, where swine pick through the garbage that line the water ways, dirt roads assure a layer of caked mud on things, and beggars dot the streets. Only many of these beggars are different than any others. They have leprosy.
They have missing hands, stumps instead of feet, eyes that are glazed or blinded, and noses that have collapsed into their faces. They are hated, rejected, stigmatized in a world that likes to pretend they don’t exist.
Until we knew Becky Douglas, we didn’t know that leprosy still held an agonizing grip on people. Like everybody else, we thought it was a biblical disease, something long ago and far away. Now it was before our eyes: Real human beings whose lives were unthinkable. While we sit at home, comfortable in our armchairs, they sleep at night, too often, on the ground or in trash heaps because they have been thrown away by their family who feared the disease and its stigma.
Each year Meridian chooses a humanitarian project and invites all of our readers to participate together in making a difference somewhere. It’s the ultimate group hug, to see if all of us pitch in, even a little, if we can’t make a big difference somewhere.
We partner with foundations that we carefully vet with the standard that their track record indicates they have significant impact. Meridian readers have helped eliminate poverty in a region in Nepal. We have sent major supplies when earthquakes wracked Haiti and Nepal. We have put a water system in Kenya and fought ebola in Liberia. Meridian readers have stepped forward with supplies in the United States during major fires. Together we have influence—and reach.
When we say, “what one person can do to help in the most difficult conditions on earth”, we are talking about you.
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We love that idea that alone we can only do a little, but if all of us truly pitch in together, our influence can be mighty. That’s why we found ourselves in Bihar. With multiple flights and long car rides, it took us four days to arrive. We lugged with us water filters and food, knowing what might be available might make us sick. All of it seemed very worth it to crack open the notion in our heads that there was nothing we could do to make a difference for a people who were precious children of God, but whose lives were so devastatingly difficult.
Why them? Why were they eaten by a disease that left them helpless, while we breezed through life counting on always having ten fingers?
We came to Bihar to learn from Becky, whose energy and compassion have made her, what some people call “a force of nature.” A Latter-day Saint mother of ten, Becky first came to India when her daughter Amber took her own life, overcome by a bipolar disorder. In searching through her dorm room, Becky discovered that Amber had been using part of the money her parents were giving her for college to donate to an orphanage in India.
“I think she had a tender spot for the under dog,” said Becky. Since many people had donated money to the orphanage for the funeral, she decided to go to India to check it out.
It was the taxi drive back and forth to the orphanage that melted Becky. At every stoplight, dozens of people came to the car begging. This was her first encounter with the leprosy affected.
“Beggars with rotting hands and feet and no eyes and open gaping wounds,” said Becky. “At one stoplight a man put his hand in the window with maggots crawling through his hand. Their suffering was just palpable.” It was so painful to see, she almost wanted to look away.
She prayed at night in her hotel. “What can I do for them?” The answer came. “Look at them. See them. See my children.”
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From this, she formed the Rising Star Outreach Foundation, around her kitchen table one morning. Her husband came home that night and asked her, “What do you know about foundations?” “Nothing.”
“What do you know about leprosy?” “Nothing.”
“What do you know about India?” “I’ve been there.”
That was then and this is now. What one person with a will to work and a will to learn and a heart to give can do is nearly breathtaking.
Rising Star School
Becky Douglas, through Rising Star Outreach, has become a major force in India serving those with leprosy. In southern India, in Tamil Nadu, she and the thousands of others she has inspired to work with her and donate to the cause, have created mobile medical units that visit leprosy colonies regularly and give care.
Leprosy leaves one with gaping wounds that must be regularly cleaned out and attended to, lest they become gangrenous, rot clear to the bone, and force the amputation of a limb.
She has instigated entrepreneurial education and micro-loans in multiple leprosy colonies. The leprosy-affected can’t get jobs because of a cultural stigma that is still alive and well in India.
Rising Star Outreach built and has run an impeccable, sophisticated, and high-quality school for the children of the leprosy-affected that will open up the future for them and a route out of the leprosy colonies. It has been named number one in the entire region. All but one of the graduates of the school has gone on to some secondary education. 625 grants are given to Indian students in three states for this school.
When we visited the school in Tamil Nadu, we felt we had arrived at a sanctuary, away from the chaos and noise of India and its unfortunate leprosy colonies. Here were computer labs, remarkable teachers, science and humanities courses, a dance troupe that had been tutored by a Broadway performer from New York. Here was peace and hope and the product of Becky’s vision.
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The Call that made Becky’s Head Spin
It would have been enough to just stop there, conquering so many of the leprosy issues in southern India, but one day Becky got a call that made her head spin. It was from a Hindu nun named Kabita Khattarai, from Bihar in northern India. She ran the Little Flower School for children of the leprosy-affected and she wanted the Rising Star Outreach program to come and build a new, top-end school like they had in Tamil Nadu.
Bihar is an especially difficult place. We mentioned that Bihar was the poorest place in India, and so, years ago, that’s why someone thought it was a good place to banish the leprosy-affected, so they can be readily out of sight and mind. Those in Bihar didn’t want them either and pushed them northward, hoping Nepal would take them. That didn’t happen either, so there, on the border, in this no-man’s land, the people with leprosy were abandoned.
It might have stayed that way if, when Mother Teresa was working in Calcutta, she hadn’t learned of a leprous man who was coming from Bihar to Calcutta for medical treatment and, on his journey, fell on the tracks and was killed by an oncoming train.
It was a stark moment, and Mother Teresa knew the leprous in Bihar needed attention and were getting none. She sent her leprosy expert from Calcutta, Father Christdas, to serve and he worked for years setting up a hospital, creating industries and jobs, lifting the leprosy-affected in so many ways.
Yet, when he died 6 years ago and Kabita inherited the work, she knew that there was still so much to do. All the progress for the children of the leprosy-affected, every chance of escaping their fate came down to giving their children a chance through education. That’s why she placed a call to Becky. The excellence of Rising Star Outreach had given them a reputation. Could she build a stellar school for the children of the leprosy colonies in northern India, in Bihar?
Becky described the thought as making her “head spin.” The job Rising Star was already undertaking was so monumental. How could they do more? Still, Becky acknowledged the Spirit nudged her on and on to say yes. Too many souls were at stake to stop now.
Becky asked us to join her on a trip to Bihar and consider this project for our Meridian readers. We looked at each other and said, “These are the least of the least, the lowest of the low, and the most forgotten and abandoned people on earth. Should Meridian get involved? Absolutely!”
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So we went with her on a trip to Bihar to survey the possibilities and we followed Becky around and we learned about leprosy. We visited a hospital that had treated 200,000 people with leprosy, but had never had a doctor. We watched as volunteers cleansed pussy, ugly wounds and felt tears sting our eyes when we reached out to hold the patients.
In addition to her lost limbs, eyes, and nose, one woman had been sitting on cement so hot it badly blistered her bottom and legs—and since she couldn’t feel it, there were many new wounds, growling with bacteria, needing to be treated.
We learned that it was difficult to get a handle on how many thousands and thousands of people have leprosy in India, because if they discover any symptoms they hide it, or their families keep them in dark, back rooms, hoping to avoid the harsh social stigma. 65% of the world’s cases of leprosy were in India and 40% of those are in Bihar.
We learned that even though a cure for leprosy had been found in 1988 and 18 million had been treated in India alone, that there were still thousands of new cases each year.
We learned that often when someone is found with leprosy symptoms, their family casts them out. We interviewed so many who told us that as little children they had lived in the street with no place to sleep.
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We learned that recently, a law had passed that a person with leprosy could own a home, but that people would not sell their houses to them. We learned that they could not travel on public transportation. They couldn’t hear a prayer. People would pour molten metal in their ears so they would never hear a prayer again. We learned that they hadn’t had voting rights.
We learned that in 2008 in Andhra Predesh, one of the states of India, they had tried to pass a law to encourage those with leprosy to kill themselves.
While this is all as grim as it gets, with Becky we were really transported to new heights of appreciation. We saw what she had done through Rising Star to help the “least of these,” and it had profoundly worked in the lives of so many. We saw the most beautiful children from leprosy villages, who will never have leprosy themselves because Rising Star so closely monitors their health conditions and gets them the meds they need immediately should they show any symptoms.
We heard these children say they wanted to be nurses and doctors and scientists and run businesses—and they will.
What One Person Can Do
Becky and the many good people of Rising Star Outreach agreed to build that school in Bihar, and Little Flower donated land along a tree-lined river for the location. As we walked the land, we could almost envision the school that will be there one day where children with radiant faces will flourish.
These children will have an education, someday get good jobs, and escape the pain and stigma of leprosy. This will be a school of the finest teachers, computer-training, dorms for safety, training in the sciences, humanities and arts—the best kind of school. They will never be beggars with maggot-infested hands.
It was then we felt to ask, “Can we help? Could we have the privilege of raising the funds for this school?” Between our readers on Meridian and now the listeners on the podcast, there are enough of us, working together to build this school. We want to because we all want to be like Christ, and he was always such a blessing to those with leprosy.
Let me help by giving generously now—CLICK HERE to donate.
Meridian’s 2019/2020 humanitarian project is to build the elementary school in Bihar for the children of the leprosy-affected. If all of our readers on Meridian and listeners to the podcast donated $25 or more, that school could begin construction work immediately. We would have more than enough money for the project. Funding would be finished in no time. You are welcome to donate more, if you can, and, of course, we encourage you to do so. And be assured that every dollar–every penny will go directly to this project from Meridian. There are no administrative fees. This is our promise.
To make your donation, CLICK HERE. Please be generous. Don’t think that everyone else will do it, so you shouldn’t. This is such an important opportunity. Actually, Meridian readers are about the most generous people we know. Thank you in advance for always helping.
Douglas and Ruth RoseOctober 14, 2019
I learned about the MeridianRising Star Outreach school project from Susan Fullmer, a subscriber and neighbor. Like some others, I am reluctant to make online contributions, so I was pleased to see that there is a check donation option. As the founding directors of Latter-day Saint Charities in India 1998-2001, we provided project support to leprosy institutes in Tamil Nadu and Nepal, so we know first-hand from our visits to the institutions the conditions lepers and their children endure and value of schooling for these healthy, but disadvantaged youth.
LynnOctober 1, 2019
I too will donate and I strongly agree with only putting the request for donations at the front and end of the article, it is very distracting and feels like all you care about is money money money, it takes away from the people you are teaching us about and touching our hearts in a way that we certainly want to help.