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Becky Douglas: Helping and Educating Leprosy Victims and Families

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If there is one role that volunteering at your kids' school or in a local capacity serves, besides that of actually helping the school or institution, it is that you gain a context for the magnitude of work that other people put forth in larger, more global roles. The same might be said of mothering, in that once you have been a mother, you can understand what life is like for mothers of many children. Being a mother of two and having volunteered in several capacities at my children's school, on our homeowners' association board, and for various nonprofits, I hear about women like Becky Douglas and realize she must be a saint. She is the mother of nine children. She is also one of the founding forces behind Rising Star Outreach, a nonprofit providing services to leprosy victims and their families in India. She is amazing.

Becky and her husband John are the biological parents of seven children. In addition, they adopted two children from Lithuania, one of whom is paraplegic. Says Rising Star's bio of the couple: "They have long been advocates of disadvantaged children and adults. Over the years they have cared for many children in their home who were in tremendous need. Some were refugee families sponsored by the Douglas’, some were run-away children needing a home, some were from mental care programs, and some were simply troubled youth. Becky and John are motivated by the belief that every person deserves opportunity and a life of dignity."

Indeed, their forming of Rising Star Outreach in 2002 was an extension of that belief, which was catalyzed by a trip they had taken to India just before where they saw first-hand the devastating affects of leprosy. It is a chronic disease affecting the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes, and is best known by the skin lesions that are its outward manifestation. Many leper colonies exist, particularly in India, although the disease has been curable for 20 years. In 1995, Wikipedia reports, "the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between 2 and 3 million people were permanently disabled because of leprosy at that time. But in the past 20 years, 15 million people worldwide have been cured. The forced quarantine or segregation of patients is no longer necessary in places where adequate treatments are available," since approximately 95% of people are naturally immune, and sufferers are no longer infectious after as little as 2 weeks of treatment.

"One of the biggest things we have to do to get rid of that curse is to educate the children," said Becky in a 2009 KSL newspaper article. "First of all, we get them off the street because the parents use them as beggars, [thinking that] people will give more money to the kids than the adults." They also provide micro-loans to the leprosy-affected people themselves, so that they can break their own cycles of dependency. This program is operated in partnership with Padma Venkataraman, the daughter of former Indian President Ramasuami Venkataraman. Lastly, Rising Star provides mobile medical clinics, since most Indian leprosy patients don't have the means to travel off-site for treatment of their disease.

So in 2004, they started teaching 27 students English, computer skills, and proper hygiene. Today, Rising Star is in 44 isolated leprosy colonies, has helped more than 20,000 people in the last 10 years, and has a 13-acre village complete with a new school and children's home funded by the Marriott Corporation. Their work is changing the lives of not only those personally affected by leprosy, but also their families and the many staff, volunteers, and donors who facilitate their mission.

It takes an amazing woman to take the love she has for her family and extend that to other adopted, foster, and Indian families. Becky Douglas is that woman.

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