Thursday, February 25, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

visit to a colony

last week we had the wonderful opportunity to go to one of the leprosy colonies that rising star serves. we had been to one before on our first day here, but this time we got to help out a lot more and stay longer to interact with the people. it was an amazing experience, especially to see where the beautiful kids that we teach come from. we learned a lot of new information about leprosy and the incredible work that rising star does.

every two weeks doctor kumar visits each colony (there are about 12 on rotation) to check the patient's vitals, distribute medication and replace bandages. we got to help clean the feet of the leprosy affected and it was very humbling and just amazing - what a unique and unparalleled opportunity.

to be honest, i was worried before coming out here that these people would be hard to look at and that their deformities would be naturally repulsing, but really the absolute opposite was true. i felt so so endeared and drawn to these wonderful brothers and sisters and so excited about interacting with them in every way. it sounds so trite, but these people are so special and immediately looked so beautiful to us.

this man was the highlight of the trip to the colony. he had been blind for 20 years until doctor kumar insisted that the hospital admit him for cataract surgery. now he can see out of one eye and has beheld the faces of his children for the first time. well, bless his heart, our new friend literally cannot contain his joy. he is as bubbly as can be, giggling and smiling and interacting with us playfully. he rambled in tamil absolutely consistently the entire time we were at the colony, even when or especially when nobody was paying attention to him. he has no fingers or toes but he is thrilled about being alive and about the sights of his surroundings (which are pretty shabby, to be true). we fell in love with this cute man!

isn't this woman so beautiful? both of her legs have been amputated because the infection from the disease and its side-effects were in her case impossible to control any other way. she didn't smile much for the picture but really she was beaming all afternoon, rolling along on her makeshift transporter.

there is something so empowering and inspiring about seeing people who are perhaps the perfect picture of human suffering displaying jubilant signs of genuine happiness. these people have been through so much, and they are smiling. it makes you really not want to complain about anything and so grateful for fingers, toes, hard pallets, noses, earlobes and the ability to feel pain (things that most leprosy patients have lost).

this womans' name is mercy so i thought it was appropriate to take a picture with her (you know, the virtues charity and mercy sort of go together?). i went and sat by her while she waited to see the doctor because it seemed she needed a little company. she was so sweet and although we couldn't communicate at all in words, our hearts seemed connected somehow. she had rough dry skin that itched but she has no fingers to scratch. what a simple thing that we take for granted; that would be infuriating to not be able to scratch an itch! there are so many things we do everyday with our fingers and toes that we don't even realize...we are so blessed!

i suppose there is a slight height difference here. these little people are so cute and we felt a love for them that was heavenly.

it has been fascinating to learn about leprosy and to realize that the work of eradication is in full force. the miracles of modern medicine, health care and education are giving these people's children and grandchildren futures that they could never have dreamed of. we are truly grateful to be part of this great work.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

we found the cutest kids in the world!

sometimes i look at the kids here at rising star and think - "you are so cute i could eat you!" and sometimes the way they say my name or are so affectionate or draw me in with their deep brown eyes makes me wonder "how will i ever live without you?" oh man. these kids are so cute. they have been through a lot and they are finding so much joy in life here. we are so blessed to be a part of their lives!

this is anita (my sister-in-law) and mariambi, who had birthdays on the same exact day! it was pretty exciting!

we love this little girl amithram. her mother was killed - one of india's many horrible "bride burnings." so so sad - but look at that smile.

we have been working hard with the kids on their pronunciation, reading, and english comprehension. considering they are far from home learning two languages at once with crazy backgrounds, they are doing great. we have been teaching a reading class, tutoring the kids, having storytime with them at night in their dorms, organizing learning activities and just taking the time to talk with them and allowing them to hear native english.

i love this picture because it really sums up a lot of our experience with the kids. they absolutely clobber us and are always hanging off us. here sara is saying "okay, really?" as kids practically strangle here. oh man. it's a good thing they are so cute.

we had the kids do a little art project after school one day.

in our reading class we have been building stories with the kids, helping them with their vocabulary and understanding. at the end of the week we made the each their own mini-book and they LOVED it!

all the kids got new shoes the other day and we got to help sort and distribute them (an all-day ordeal). it was worth the work because this is how they felt about their new shoes:

they weren't shy about showing them off!

and they looked so good all perfectly matching and in line for school.

we adore these kids - especially when they share their forehead dots with us.

and we love it here. we are trying to do a lot of good. and we are learning so much in the process.

Monday, February 15, 2010

walk to the junction

on saturday we took a walk through our little village of thottanaval, along green, green fields to "the junction" - where our rural road meets another and the sleepy countryside bursts into commercial life with the few shops meeting at the corner. we'd been there just a few days before at sunset to celebrate anita's birthday with some ice cream but today we wanted to take the trek on our own two feet and it turned out to be an incredible adventure and a beautiful window into the daily life that hundreds of millions of people live. too distracted and fascinated to take pictures, we captured loads of snapshots of color and strange beauty in our minds.

just outside the gates of rising star campus, we are in the thick of a rural indian village; twenty feet away from where we sleep in a nice new facility are rows of mud and straw huts where families live. we walk down the dusty road, sprinkled with cow poop and trash. every once in a while there is a bright but faded hindu shrine on the side of the road and cattle roaming lazily. people come out of their low huts to see us and they smile at us as we pass. within five minutes we have found two little friends - small girls who can only communicate with us to tell us their names and who walk with us through the village for a while. every once in a while we hear a distant yelled "hallo!" and look to see someone waving from their humble home. we are the white spectacle of the week. we see people just living their lives, unaware that they are the poorest of the poor and in this case i believe that ignorance is bliss. they are happy, they are content, and they have nothing.

all of a sudden we see a flood of people coming down the road, what seems to be a stampede of workers returning from the fields for lunch. from a distance their vibrant, gorgeous clothes look like a divinely beautiful wave of color. as they get closer to us, they smile, the younger ones with bright white teeth, the elders with dirty smiles rotted from beetle root. as they begin to pass us, they are cheerful and chattery and, a little confused with their english we think, they all wave their hands and say "bye!" as a greeting. many women come up to us and touch our arms and say something tender that we cannot understand. they carry water, tools, food, and anything else on their hands, their skin is hard-worked and leathery, their noses are pierced, sometimes on both sides, and their forehead dots catch the light of the sun. the men interact with us less, walking on the sides of the road as we head straight down the middle, but smile as we say "vannakam" (hello in tamil) to their daughters and wives.

it is amazing to me that we feel a connection, a warmth and love when coming in split-second contact with people wildly different from us. we have nothing in common, yet our spirits smile upon one another. we are all children of the same god.

on the outskirts of the village, some small girls carrying loads of firewood on their heads ask us to take a photo, marvel at their own faces on the screen and walk with us until they reach their homes. we are suddenly out of the village and enveloped in the sweeping green fields lined with palm trees. every once in a while a motorcycle whizzes by, the man driving and the woman sitting side saddle on the back in some exquisitely colored sari. or from time to time we hear that blaring honking that has become the national sound of india, a brightly painted truck rattles by, nearly knocking us off the road. other than this traffic, it's just us, the workers in the fields, the hot heavy air and the still occasional cow. it's beautiful in a way no other place in the world could be.

we pass the victoria's secret factory on the right side of the road. yep, all that lingerie is made out here in the middle of nowhere. kind of interesting. it's that big white building that signals we are almost there.

just when we think we might fall over from the heat, humidity and the long walk, we spot the bright colors of the buildings in the junction. we cool off with ice cream cones, find the tailor and turn in some fabric we bought last week to be made into custom chuithidars (tunic + mc hammer pants). it is there that we are picked up for another saturday adventure and as we rattle away from the junction we are pleased as punch having traversed through a dab of the little life that so many live. one billion people in india. we think our lives are the norm, but that is so untrue. this rural poverty is the norm, we are so the exception. we feel simultaneously blessed and burdened by our possessions.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

haircuts and lice removal

When you live with 170 other kids in a tight space, you share everything...pencils, books,clothes, and lice. I was always terrified of lice when I was in younger and immature. The school nurse would check each year and I couldn't think of anything worse than having critters on my head. Now that I've grown up, I have realized that lice isn't so bad. There are a lot of worse things to be had. The kids at Peery Matriculation School pretty much all have it, so this week has been filled with haircuts and lots of shampooing. The girls had a blast lathering up and running around naked. What a life. At any given time, Charity, Sara, and I are covered by at least ten children hanging from our arms, legs, and neck. There's no way we are getting out of this place lice-free. I think we have pretty much accepted this fact. Bring it on.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

They Are Everywhere...

Holy Cow! Seriously, they are everywhere.

More Kids. Seriously, they are everywhere.

Leprosy Art school. Think about that.


A family we built a house for after saving their little girls from a fire. Just kidding. Totally random strangers who wanted a picture with tall Americans.

Talmadge teaching
We love it here. And seriously...they are everywhere!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

our little life in india...

it's like i'm a missionary again, using the plural pronoun for's a good thing the three of us like each other. here are some tid-bits from OUR little life in india.

we sleep in a room that is five or six stars compared to our accommodations in thailand (which included two nights sprawled on chairs in the bangkok airport). we each get our own bed with a bright bedspread and a shelf to keep the tiny amount of belongings we carried with us.

every morning we wake up and go to the "closet" to pick out our outfit for the day. the closet is full of traditional indian clothing that we must wear when we are working at the school. each day we wear a different churidar - big baggy (often mc hammer looking) pants plus a decorated tunic on top.

we eat at the children's hostel (where they live) all three meals. breakfast and lunch we eat sitting on the steps outside and dinner we enjoy on the roof as the sun goes down and the stars come out. every single meal includes rice with some kind of spicy, vegetarian sauce. this morning we had rice dumplings (idlies) with coconut chutney and last night our meal was supplemented by red beets and fruit salad. mostly the food is really really yummy, but every once in a while we get something questionable, so we are grateful for the granola bars and fruit snacks we hauled around thailand.

the children are so so very adorable. they also have a lot of energy and it is apparent they have been trained from birth to beg. they absolutely clobber us when we play with them or try to teach them - it is not unusual at all to see one of us 100% covered in indian children - 5 hanging off our arms, 5 more holding our legs, 5 more incessantly repeating "auntie, auntie" and a couple playing with our hair. it is hard to get them in control and today we are exhausted after a full day of tutoring and teaching. indeed, they can seem like little hellions at times, but once you look at their faces and remember where they came from, your heart melts all over again.

we have been trying to teach the kids how to say their alphabet correctly, and they are determined because if they get it perfect, they earn a bracelet. so, they constantly climb on top of us and loudly recite the ABCs. some of them have done really well correcting their pronunciation, but for many it is nearly impossible to reverse the incorrect way they were taught to pronounce the letters. hours have been consumed by us so far saying "EEEEM" and the kids repeating "YEEEEM!" hopefully they can help each other and all know the letters correctly in the next week or so. for now, we just have their determined voices ringing through our heads, the letters popping around in our brains - "eeeeEEEF!" "YeeeEEL!"

the school is surrounded by palm trees, rice patties, and a village just beyond the fence. from the bathroom in the volunteer hostel, we can always hear some going-ons in the village - rattling tamil all around.

they are building an addition to the school in between where we sleep and where the children sleep. it is amazing to see how much it changes everyday and how many good people rising star can employ. skinny old men wheelbarrow rocks down the dirt path and women in beautiful clothes form an assembly line carrying sand on their heads in big shallow bowls. one of the women has a little baby, who sits happily on a pile of dirt while everyone works on the building behind her. she has a big black dot on her forehead and seems to be happy all the time! when she sleeps she is put in a make-shift hammock made from beautiful mustard yellow and red fabric and tied on two ends to a tree across the path from the construction site.

the teachers and house mothers all wear beautiful, vibrant saris and we love them. we marvel wherever we go at the beauty of the fabrics and the fact that no two saris are ever the same. on sunday we went to the children's hostel before we got on the bus for church with the fabric pathetically draped around us and one of the house mothers saw us, gave us a knowing smile and promptly whipped the saris around us in two minutes flat. we had watched a movie on you tube about how to wrap a sari and tried to figure it out all night. nothing.

we are among some of the world's greatest humanitarians - my brother and sister-in-law tal and anita, the hendershot family with their five children, the denning family with their four (and these two families will stay for a year or more!), tom the school's athletic director on a gap year between high school and college, rathika the incredible new principle from california, and kristin a wonderful, fun girl here managing the sponsorship program. a couple of nights we have stayed up talking with everyone or playing games with dice.

when we have been off-campus in the neighboring towns, to-and-from church and during our one quite horrific day in kolkata, we have been stunned by the craziness of this country. there is garbage everywhere, cows eating it, people bathing, sleeping, working or dying on the side of the road, and the constant, constant, constant sound of honking (to replace lanes and traffic signals). we were told to be prepared to be confronted with the deepest of the third-world in india, but we could have never prepared ourselves for what we have seen. it is, all at once, amazing and horrible, awesome and depressing. there is no place like india, and we are so blessed to see it.

we've learned that bindis, the little dot between the eyes, is much more a fashion statement than a religious thing, which made me feel quite alright about wearing one around our little trip to mamalapurum. i think they really are pretty!

dani is working with the teachers at the school on their english and lesson plans, sara is teaching the older kids piano lessons, i am doing tutoring with some kids that are falling behind, and all three of us teach the 1st and 2nd standard classes for a half an hour in the afternoon. all these things are quite the feat but we are mostly happy for the challenge.

one billion people live in india. one billion people! there are people everywhere here. we are really, really out in the countryside here at rising star campus, but i don't recall ever seeing any space along the way that wasn't occupied with people in one way or another - women in their bright saris in the rice paddies or little villages swarming with men or children in their school uniforms. it is amazing to see all these people and remember that god knows each of them, and loves them dearly. on the way to church we saw the slums down by the river in chennai just teaming with people and even on our 4 am drive out of kolkata to catch our plane there were so many out in the street.

at night on our way home from the children's hostel we see frogs jumping about and there are always the dogs lurking around, looking incredibly mangy. there are also constant flutters of dragonflies and butterflies through the mango and palm trees.

the kids call us "auntie" and are very affectionate and love to play - something they didn't get to do much of living in the leprosy colonies.

everyone, it seems, in india bobbles their head. side to side, led by the chin. no shoulder movement. the head bobble can mean anything - yes, no, i have no idea, what the heck are you saying, sure, maybe and whatever. we are starting to do it.

in the little bit of sight-seeing that we have done, we have been asked several times by indians if they could take a photo with us in it. we're celebrities just by virtue of being white!

yesterday we started teaching the kids dani's signature ukulele song. it was quite perfect that we were all sitting in a big mango tree grove since the song is about mangoes. it is amazing to see the children light up with simple pleasures and to see the lightbulb go on as they learn.

we are blessed to be here and are trying to work hard to make a difference in these precious lives. we have here on campus a little slice of heaven that is proving to be challenging and wonderful and life-changing day by day.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


We all appreciate those experiences that give you a bigger perspective.

Church is a 7 hour ordeal out here when you include the 2 hour bumpy, hot, crowded bus ride to and from the Chennai branch. The branch has a healthy gathering of Indians, several ex-pats, 3 sets of missionaries and witnessed a baptism today. Although the heavy Indian accents meant we could hardly understand a majority of the testimonies, as Charity put it, "the Spirit speaks the same language to everyone." It definitely gives you a different perspective when you see how much more effort it takes to be an active member in a third world Hindu country.

We learned in Relief Society that only one of their sisters has been to the temple, she being fortunate enough to afford the trip to Hong Kong. She said with a big smile, "I've only been to the temple once, but that is enough to last me a lifetime." It was one of those humbling moments when you remember that you work across the street from one temple and live 7 minuets away from another. We're grateful for the bigger perspective we got today.

Dani & Charity singing "I am a Child of God" for a blind leprosy afflicted man.

Parents came yesterday to see their children perform at "Sports Day." The flags, banners and programs were all made by hand.

Two cuties

Friday, February 5, 2010


well we made it to india and now we are at the rising star campus near a little town called chingleput. it is beautiful here - very heavenly in fact. we are getting busy doing projects with the kids at the school. we love it here and feel so blessed to be involved with such an awesome organization and to see the changes that are being made for these beautiful people. we will post more experiences and stories tomorrow but here are some pictures for tonight :)

at some real cool ruins at a place called mamalapurum - we took a little trip there last night. we also got to go see the leprosy patients in the colonies. we will write about that later...

the girls at the school! aren't they so cute?! we fell in love with them immediately. in this picture they are waiting for the engagement party to start - two of the people that work here at rising star have been arranged by their parents to be married and we celebrated their engagement today with all the staff, volunteers and kids.

the boys waiting. they are adorable. we love them.

this is the groom and the bride (third from the right) with relatives. aren't their sarees so beautiful?? we have been marveling at the fabrics in this country since we got here and yesterday bought some fabric to have made into outfits for us! the groom and bride would not stand anywhere near each other during most of the engagement party. they have said about 5 sentences to each other. they will be married at the end of the month.
this is us in chingleput near the fabric store. here at rising star they have a whole room full of traditional clothes that we wear every day. it is awesome. there in the street you see a million vibrant colors, people begging, cows wandering around, people selling all kinds of things, stray dogs, lots of's great. we are learning to love india.

some of the girls at the school and oaks, who is the son of the new directors. they got here 2 months ago and they have five young kids. it is so fun to see the little white kids going to school with all the kids that came from the leprosy colonies. they are adorable.

okay - we are exhausted and off to bed but we'll post more later. basically this place is heaven and we love and we hope we can do a lot of good here. mostly we will be teaching english to the kids (they have english teachers who really can't speak much themselves) and helping with the computer class. we get to go into the colonies every once in a while and help with the mobile medical clinic. more details coming.

hooray for incredible india!