Carpeah—like so many others in India—lived every day in pain. He was banished to live among “his own,” forbidden to associate with the rest of society and reduced to nothing but a beggar. He was also afflicted with a disease that rendered him permanently blind. Being well into his 60s, Carpeah had an 18-year-old grandson, whom he had never been able to see.
Fortunately, this tragic story has a happy ending. Everything changed for Carpeah when he was introduced to Rising Star Outreach.
After years of living life blind, Carpeah found hope in an operation. Rising Star Outreach found a doctor in India who agreed to operate on him. Normally this treatment is preposterous, unheard of—no one would ever waste time operating on a leprosy patient. But because of Rising Star’s dedication and persistence, Carpeah’s life has been changed forever. He can now see his family and friends and has an entirely different outlook on the world. When I first met him, he wouldn’t stop dancing around me, singing praises to the heavens and shouting “Hallelujah!”
Carpeah is one of many people I had the opportunity to spend time with during my trip to India. During that summer, my mom and I explored India in a new way—by volunteering with Rising Star Outreach and working in various leprosy colonies all over southern India, treating the people there both medically and emotionally.
The team members of Rising Star go into a different leprosy colony each day and administer medication to all leprosy patients who live there. Rising Star’s mobile medical units provide the leprosy patients with the Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) they need in order to cure their disease. If the infection is caught early on, the disease can be co
mpletely cured and all signs of it healed. The treatment can even help prolonged cases of the infection.
Along with the medication, personal hygiene kits are handed out. In these kits are items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and antibacterial sanitizer to help the victims clean their wounds and take better care of themselves. The Rising Star anthropology team also goes to the leprosy colonies to speak with the people there. I enjoyed my days on this project sitting with the leprosy victims, listening to their stories, and holding them close to show them how lovable they truly are.
When I wasn’t working directly with leprosy victims at the colonies, I was back at the Rising Star campus helping and playing with the children. The children live and go to school at Rising Star, which gives them a chance for a more successful future. The social stigma that accompanies the disease is sometimes even more damaging than the disease itself. Even if the children remained at the colonies, many would never contract leprosy. In order to develop the disease, you must have a specific genetic component that leaves your body susceptible to the Mycobacterium Leprae (the bacteria that enters your body and causes leprosy). Only 5 percent of the general population have this genetic component—meaning that 95 percent of the general population are naturally immune to leprosy.
My experiences in India that summer changed my life, and I hope I helped change the lives of those at the colonies as well. At the Rising Star Outreach campus, the volunteer groups are split into smaller teams. Every day teams wake up early to perform the service they are assigned. One of the service projects I helped with while volunteering was building squatters for one of the leprosy colonies. A “squatter” is a form of toilet in India. Instead of an upright fixture from the ground, squatters are circular holes drilled into the ground with a sewage pipe attached and a brick wall enclosing it. The need for the squatters was obvious. The people in the colony had been using nearby fields to go to the bathroom, but because the government was buying those fields, the people had nowhere to go. Conditions like these are seen in almost every leprosy colony in India, and Rising Star Outreach is working hard to better the living conditions at each colony.
To help this particular colony, Rising Star decided to build seven different squatters right there in the middle of their village. The plan called for the squatters’ outer wall to be seven-feet tall and to be completed as quickly as possible—so we went to work. My team worked long hours hauling and laying bricks, mixing cement, smoothing the walls, and building it all up. During the first day on the project, we were able to build a four-foot-high wall around the s
quatter, and the project was finished the following day by the next team. A two-day project is an easy task when weighing it against the lifelong benefits. While we were working, people from the colony came to watch and thank us as we served them. Their glowing faces and kind words made our sacrifice seem small.
We also spent many days in the various leprosy colonies, working with the medical team and helping to heal the victims. When we went with the medical team we helped the doctors administer medicine, take patients’ blood pressure, and wash their hands and feet.
During my first trip with the medical unit, I had a very special experience. We returned to the same leprosy colony that we had visited on my first trip out—the one where Carpeah lives. As soon as we got off the bus, the people from the village came to meet us, happy to see familiar faces. One man, who I had shared several games of Jenga with during the previous visit, came up to my mom and me and grabbed our hands. He began cheerfully talking to us and pointing toward a group of huts a little ways off. Our translator explained that he was happy to see us again, and this time he wanted to show us pictures of his wife (who we found out later had passed away just a couple of years before) and of his daughters. We were honored that he wanted to invite us into his home, and we quickly accepted and let him lead us away. Once inside, we listened as he described each picture hanging on the wall. It was amazing to be with him in his home and listen as he shared private details of his life with us. Though our translator was with us, translation wasn’t necessary. He was speaking a completely foreign language to me, but I knew and could feel the love he was expressing for his family.
After we joined back up with the doctors, it was time to get to work. Because the people from that colony were already comfortable with us, it was easy to round them up and get them ready to see the doctors. We began by washing their hands and feet, which were badly wounded.
Many people don’t understand that leprosy does not actually kill its victims but causes them permanent and progressive physical disability. These disabilities include severe mutilation of the face and limbs and widespread damage to nerves, bones, eyes, and vital organs. Because of this, many victims of the disease have deep wounds that leave their bones exposed. Their already brittle bones are easily injured because of the loss of sensation in their limbs.
Because of the grueling nature of the disease, once the patients lose sensation in their hands and feet they can unknowingly burn themselves, cut themselves, or cause other damage to themselves. After wounding themselves once, it becomes easier for them to fall again and cause even more injuries.
One woman I met while spending time with the anthropology team told me that she had fallen only a week before. Because of her loss of sensation in her hands and feet, the bones in those areas had been gnawed away by unnoticed injuries. Her condition, like that of so many others, makes it difficult for her to get around. And on that occasion her balance was off, she wasn’t able to steady herself, and she fell to the hard ground, breaking two ribs.
Her story is not uncommon—many leprosy-affected people have only a few fingers and toes, or none at all. This part of their condition makes it essential for us to wash their sores. By washing them, we can clean them up and then re-bandage them to try to help new skin grow and heal their wounds.
It was while washing one woman’s feet that I began to connect with the people I was serving and began imagining life as they know it. They know only hardship and cruelty; sympathy and kindness are completely foreign to them. Working with Rising Star Outreach gave me a deeper understanding for their condition and helped me comprehend how much needs to be done.
While I was helping the nurses give out hygiene kits and medication to each person, it was rewarding to see their reactions. They all lit up when given these simple commodities that most people in America would take for granted. To show their appreciation, some of them dropped a few rupees to pay us for the medication. Although they have nothing, they still search for something to give.
Volunteering with Rising Star Outreach let me be a part of something much bigger than me. I spent the summer immersed in serving the most humble people on earth. It would have been easy to get discouraged by the living conditions, the sweltering heat, or the communication barrier, but the time I spent in India was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Traveling to India as a volunteer let me experience India in a unique way. I was able to see India like someone in the lowest caste does. It was one of the most educating, humbling, and introspective times of my life.
How It All Started
Becky Douglas—housewife, mother of ten, accomplished violinist, and founder of Rising Star Outreach—is one woman who has followed Ghandi’s charge to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Becky did not even know that leprosy still existed before her daughter Amber, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide. Soon after Amber’s passing, the Douglases were surprised to find that she had been donating some of her monthly allowance to support an orphan in India. In honor of Amber, family and friends made more donations to the orphanage and, consequently, Becky was invited to be on the board of directors. She decided that if she was going to accept this invitation, a visit to India was in order.
On her trip, Becky found that the orphanage was in fairly good condition, but she was shocked by the disfigured beggars who appeared at her car window. When Becky asked about them, her driver informed her that they suffered from leprosy. Becky learned that they rode in from the colonies on public transportation at night because no one wanted to share a bus with them. They would live on the streets of the city until they thought they had collected enough money to take back and survive for another month or so. Becky felt that this lifestyle was completely unacceptable.
After she returned home, the faces of those beggars would not leave her mind. “I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “The images just haunted me at night. I finally decided I could either have insomnia forever or I could do something. So I woke up one morning and called three friends. We met around my kitchen table. I said ‘I want to form a charity
Rising Star Outreach was launched in April 2004 and was designed to help support other charities in India. But the organization quickly found that it wasn’t accomplishing what its founders had hoped. Becky knew that if they wanted to make a permanent difference in the leprosy colonies, they needed to start their own charity. She wanted to help eradicate leprosy, and simply giving these people some rice was a temporary solution that wasn’t going to do the job.
Rising Star opened a home with 27 children from the colonies in a tiny rented facility where they had to sleep shoulder to shoulder and had only one cement driveway to play on. The children were taught English and self-worth, among other things. Now, seven years later, Rising Star has a beautiful million-dollar landscaped campus, complete with a library, computer lab, playground, and dining hall. From that meeting of four women around Becky’s kitchen table, Rising Star has now profoundly blessed the lives of over 20,000 people.
Becky’s life was changed by her trip to India, and she says that it changes the lives of all the Rising Star volunteers who come as well. “There is something so satisfying about lifting others. It’s almost intoxicating,” she says, “I think if people come on their travels and spend time doing things that make a difference, that trip becomes a meaningful trip instead of one more palace or one more museum. After a while those things just run together—but this you never forget.”