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A Gardener of the Human Spirit

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September 2004
A Gardener of the Human Spirit

An Atlanta woman's tending and nurturing has brought a blossom to the previously barren lives of many in South India.

By IVY MOULTRIE

Becky Douglas has a dream; and it is for a people of a land faraway from hers. She dreams of bringing self-sufficiency and self-respect to a certain downtrodden and shunned population of Chennai in South India.

Douglas, born in Salt Lake City, Utah is an accomplished violinist who has played with the Atlanta Ballet, the Opera and the Chamber Orchestra. These days she hardly has time for her passion for violin. Instead, her time and passion now belong to the leprosy-affected people of Chennai.

A visit to India is what changed Becky's life and her outlook towards the world. After the tragic loss of her 25-year old daughter, Becky chose to support the cause that her daughter had felt strongly about; that of financially supporting an orphanage in India. In addition to the monetary help, in October 2001, Becky decided to personally visit the orphanage. Like many who visit India for the first time, her life was transformed.

Chennai has a large population of the leprosy-affected. It is an acutely marginalized, if not outright despised population that is treated no different than the way ?untouchables' were in the traditional caste system. They are usually reduced to begging to fend for themselves.

The sight of these beggars with their vacant looks devoid of hope is what disturbed Becky so much that she resolved to make a difference. She could well have given them money and alms, thanks to her American means. But she was touched enough to want nothing less than self-sufficiency and pride for a people who had little hope for these. Rising Star Outreach (RSO), an organization created by Becky along with friends, was thus born.

However, for an American looking to make such a personal impact in the lives of a shunned population in India, there were bound to be unique challenges; language and cultural barriers being just a couple of those. Asked how she overcame them, Becky responded, "We are able to run our programs in India because we have carefully sought out Indians to administer the programs. We have registered our organization there as Rising Star Outreach of India. As such, its Board of Directors is composed 100% of Indians.

Becky is quite enthusiastic about their India partners. "They are absolutely wonderful. Our shared goal of improving the lot of leprosy-affected people has been enough to spur us to overlook cultural barriers and focus on shared goals. Our Indian leadership and American volunteers work surprisingly well together. Each group learns from the other."

Inspired by her work, Becky was contacted by Padma Venkantaraman, daughter of the former President of India, R Venkataraman. Padma, was VP of "Women's India Association" (WIA) and had been working with colonies of leprosy-affected people. The synergistic partnership between Becky and Padma resulted in both women leveraging each other's strengths. Padma was instrumental in bridging the communication and administrative gaps for Becky. On the other hand, when Padma's funding ran out, RSO came to the rescue, and has been funding Padma's efforts over the past year. Now as full-fledged partners, Padma and RSO are working together to create meaningful, lasting change.

With a philosophy of "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime", great effort has been devoted to making people self-sufficient and independent. Funded by RSO, a bank was set up to lend money to start micro businesses like carpentry, dairy production, animal husbandry, and flower cultivation. Special tools to assist these people to combat the debilitating effects of leprosy have been provided to ease their labor. With initial encouragement they have shown tremendous results.

Once a barren land, these colonies have begun to bloom with vegetable gardens and orchards, proudly tended by the former beggars. Not only are they feeding themselves a more nutritious diet and staving off disease, but are also developing pride in themselves and their accomplishments. One man is even growing flowers to sell as a cash crop, and is now providing employment to four.

Since getting acceptance from the society for the finished products by the leprosy-affected people is not easy, Padma has created a market system that requires minimal dependence on the outside world.

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Interacting with these people has given Becky some uplifting experiences. In one incident, a man in one of the colonies where Padma was working asked for rice. He was told that instead of giving him rice, they would provide him with the skills needed to buy his own. The man stormed out of there in anger! However, the seed of hope had fallen on fertile ground. Sometime later when Padma returned to the colony, the same man approached her. Through the micro-lending fund that she had established, he had become a skilled carpenter. To show his gratitude, he had made a chair for Padma.

In an attempt to rescue the offsprings of beggars from the wretched life of rag picking, RSO is building homes and schools for these children. To facilitate competition in the modern world, the medium of instruction in these schools is English. The students are taught principles of hygiene and self-reliance. Encouraged by the remarkable academic results as well as the shining faces of these children, Padma too has thrown the lot of WIA in this project. In Becky's word, "The partnership between RSO and Padma has been a strong one, and a mutually beneficial one. We have found that by working closely, we are able to achieve much more than we could ever achieve working separately."

A closer look at Becky reveals why it is no surprise that she has gone all out for the cause of RSO. A nurturing woman, Becky is the mother of seven biological children and two adopted ones. While in Chennai, she was moved by the plight of an Indian child, Esther, who worked as a domestic help from the age of five. Though illiterate, Esther had the burning desire to be somebody. Becky saw that fire in her and arranged for a visa for her to come to America. Today, Esther is doing exceptionally well in school here, and she dreams of returning to India as a teacher. She wishes to show young girls that determination and opportunity can accomplish anything.

The seed of Becky's dream has grown to a huge tree under whose shade many have found shelter. RSO is now the proud owner of ten fertile acres. Moreover, land is being purchased for a home for 400 children. The future plan comprises of more schools for another thirty colonies.

Rising Star Outreach funds its programs by providing each needy child with a caring American sponsoring family.

Recently Becky was a featured speaker at an affluent NRI Tamil Nadu foundation. Referring to the conditions of the leprosy-affected in Chennai, when she asked the audience, "Are you not tired of turning your head and averting your eyes to the pain and misery around you?" she was speaking from the depth of her soul.���

[More information on RSO is available at www.risingstaroutreach.org.]


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