From India with LoveNov 1, 2010
It’s funny where a degree in American Studies can take you.
For Amy Antonelli, a 2003 graduate, her degree took her far from the nation she studied, to a remote village in India where life has moved to the same slow beat for the last many centuries. Modern facilities and education have yet to reach Thottanaval Village, a rural community two hours from the closest city. And the antiquated caste system still largely determines the role a person can aspire to. Most heartbreakingly, leprosy—a disease cured more than seventy years ago—still afflicts millions of Indians, maiming bodies and spirits.
That’s how it was in 2005 when Antonelli left her job as a spokesperson for Apple Computers to assume the role of Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Rising Star Outreach, an Atlanta-based aid organization focusing on India’s leprosy colonies. A strange move, perhaps, for a woman on her way up the corporate ladder in California’s Silicon Valley, but one which Antonelli felt certainty and clarity about.
During a humanitarian trip to India in 2004, Antonelli visited a leprosy colony, where she was stunned to learn how many people still suffer from the disease, which destroys the tissues of the body, claiming limbs and often the life of the sufferer. Leprosy patients are often denied even basic medical treatment because of the social stigma. “In India, if people can see that you are leprosy-affected, you are done. You are a beggar,” Antonelli says. “That’s one of the biggest tragedies, because it’s so easy to cure. The remedy costs $1.50.”
Antonelli also learned the children of the leprosy affected are just as stigmatized, sometimes unable to attend school with other children, doomed to live out their days in the leprosy colonies as the next generation of street beggars. While in India, Antonelli was introduced to Rising Star Outreach, a program dreamed up at the kitchen table of founder Becky Douglas. Before Amy came aboard, Douglas had started a nursery school, where twenty-seven children from the leprosy colonies were provided nourishing meals, read stories, and taught English. Antonelli was inspired by Douglas’s work and decided to join her. Through a series of miracles, and relying heavily on Antonelli’s business background, they’ve been able to expand the program to include healthcare and microloans. Donors have provided resources to
build a million-dollar campus on fourteen acres, providing education and support to the leprosy community.
“For the first time,” Antonelli says, “these people have a viable alternative to begging. If we continue to do what we’re doing, this will be the last generation of leprosy beggars. We are literally working ourselves out of a job, and that is exactly what we have come to do.” Antonelli is astonished by the growth of the organization in the last five years—progress due to the combined efforts of many. The Rising Star Outreach board of directors comprises some of America’s most respected business leaders, and the campus hosts between 100 and
150 volunteers every year, many of whom are BYU students and alumni families.
The Peery School for Rising Stars now boasts an enrollment of 200 children. Most of them come from leprosy colonies and live on campus, but about a quarter come from local, healthy villages to encourage integration and mitigate the stigma attached to leprosy. For the first time in history, a great education is trumping the caste system.
The parents in the leprosy colonies are also beginning to thrive due to the thousands of small loans that have helped them transition from beggars to business owners. “Becoming self-sufficient gives them dignity and respect. Where they were once literally untouchable, as business owners they are now slowly being invited back into the community,”Antonelli says.
Antonelli’s days include meetings with governors, soliciting donations from the leaders of international business, managing builders and architects, and performing some of the intimidating health procedures on leprosy victims. Her favorite part of the job, however, is the time she gets to spend playing with the children. This life is not what she pictured for herself, but she says, “Sometimes God has a plan C. Perhaps the reason some of us don’t have children of our own yet is only because there are already so many children around the world who
need the kind of love we can offer.” “I think the kids are our secret hold on [Antonelli],” says Douglas. “If there is a child within 500 feet, Amy will find that child and within ten seconds it will be in her arms.”
“For me, this is the greatest life possible, but it never would have been one I would have chosen,” Antonelli says. “I remember sitting in the dirt one day, talking to a woman who no longer had any hands. As she told me her story, I reached out in sympathy to touch her arm, and I will never forget the shock on her face that somebody touched her. I felt profoundly the power of her pain, and once you feel something that
deeply, you don’t really have a choice. You either act or live with the fact that you didn’t. I guess I just couldn’t face the second option.”