By Jayme Mendenhall
Rebecca Douglas visited India in 2000 and observed a depth of suffering that was palpable. The worst of what she saw was the Leprosy beggars. When she returned to the United States, she was so haunted by images of suffering people that she knew she had to act. She called four close friends, and around her kitchen table they quietly formed Rising Star Outreach. It was incorporated and received its 501(c)(3) tax-free status in March 2002. Rising Star Outreach takes a three-pronged approach to ease the suffering and eradicate the cycle of poverty associated with Leprosy:
1. To teach the children from the colonies pride in their Indian heritage and to provide them tools necessary to break the generational cycle of dependence on society and instead become productive members of that society.
2. To encourage ostracized families to work toward independence by providing loans for small businesses and structural improvements.
3. To address the physical ravages of Leprosy's bitter attack and screen for new cases through mobile medical units.
The first official Rising Star Outreach children's home was rented and opened in April of 2004 with 27 children from the Leprosy colonies. The success of the home was stunning, and in 2005 a second children’s home was rented and opened for 32 additional colony kids. Now officially recognized by the Indian government, Rising Star has been commended for the high standard of care and excellence maintained in the school as the children prepare to enter mainstream society. They have since been able to build their own facility on 13.5 acres. This beautiful new facility currently houses and educates 180 children K-10, with a new grade added at the bottom each year.
While Rising Star was happy to have finally found a way to successfully care for the children of Leprosy victims, the suffering of their families who remained behind in the colonies could not be ignored. There needed to be a long term approach to lift the Leprosy afflicted out of their poverty. This was not an easy task in a country where the Leprosy-afflicted are shunned from society and considered untouchables. Banks refuse to lend to them. The beggar’s life has been the only way to survive for thousands of years for someone afflicted with Leprosy.
In June of 2003, Rebecca met Padma Venkataraman while working in the colonies. Padma is the daughter of India’s former president and is well known for her pioneering work facilitating micro-financing projects in Leprosy colonies. Her idea was a simple one, but it took a lot of effort to convince the people it could work. Finally, a group of 4-5 women decided to give it a try. Each month they would each commit to contributing the (US) equivalent of ten cents into a pot until they had accumulated $5. Then one of the women would take this loan and buy an iron, or some chickens or something with which she could start up a small business. As the business grew, she could pay back the loan. When another $5 was gathered, then the next woman could take out a loan and the process would continue and grow. Gradually, the others in the colony saw the success of the women and want to take out loans too; and gradually, the colony became self-sufficient! For the first time in known history, those afflicted with Leprosy have a viable alternative to begging and are rising above the stigma of their disease.
As the colonies began to improve their economic situation, the primary challenge they faced was the lack of consistent medical care. Access to hospitals was difficult, both logistically and due to the social stigma. Rising Star Outreach responded to this problem with the initiation of a Mobile Medical Unit in March 2005. Finally, severely deformed Leprosy victims' problem of being unable to leave the colony for adequate medical care was resolved. Run completely by a team of excellent Indian doctors, the unit travels to the colonies and provides leprosy screening, medicines for treatment, wound and ulcer care, and medical treatment for non-leprosy related ailments such as TB, typhoid fever, and diabetes.
Rising Star Outreach has now grown into a nationally recognized force in the fight against Leprosy. They have clarified their mission to focus on one specific objective: to help the Leprosy colonies become thriving, self-sufficient communities. Using these three methods, Rising Star expects to see the Indian Leprosy colonies converted into thriving, self-sufficient communities by the year 2020. Rising Star Outreach typically has about 1,000 loans out to leprosy-affected patients. These loans are constantly being repaid and re-lent. They also have around 3,000 loans out to victims of the 2004 tsunami; the average loan is between $20-$100. Rising Star plans to duplicate this program in other Indian states and in other developing countries where Leprosy continues to destroy families and lives.
The success of Rising Star Outreach to date has truly been a miracle. It is one that they attribute completely to the kindness and generosity of concerned people all over the world and the loving hand of God.
- for providing shelter, food, health care, and education for children of leprosy-affected persons by building and running children's homes.
- to fund the schools for the children. Donations fund not only the building of the schools, but running them as well. Teachers, teaching supplies, books, and uniforms are all part of the school costs.
- to provide micro-loans for small businesses as part of the economic rehabilitation of the leprosy-affected.
- to improve the living conditions of the leprosy colonies through targeted improvement projects.
- to run mobile medical clinics to the leprosy colonies that provide wound care, leprosy-screening, leprosy treatment, eye care, and treatment for other diseases affecting the colonists.