Clad in a chocolate-colored sweatsuit, BlackBerry in hand and hair pulled back in a “just-got-back-from-the-gym” ponytail, Palo Alto resident Amy Antonelli could not have appeared more ordinary by local standards if she had tried. But halfway around the globe, Antonelli is anything but ordinary.
Antonelli, a 2007 Center for Social Innovation Fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is the executive director of Rising Star Outreach, a nonprofit organization that provides aid to leprosy colonies in India through monetary, educational and medical assistance. Ron and Joyce Hansen ‘59 now serve as country managing directors for the organization in India, and undergraduates at Stanford have done volunteer work for the program.
The project’s origins are modest. Founder Becky Douglas came up with the idea while sitting at her kitchen table in Atlanta after visiting leprosy colonies in 2002. Visiting the colonies similarly moved Antonelli to take action.
“When I saw the leprosy colonies in India, I could not believe something like that still existed,” Antonelli said. “I felt like I was in the right place and that helping these people was the next step for me.”
Leprosy is a disease that degenerates body tissues and causes damage to the limbs, nerves, skin and eyes. People with the disease lose the ability to feel in their affected body parts, causing many of their injuries and wounds to be self-induced.
But leprosy has a cure. Antibiotics can generally be used to cure the disease if it is diagnosed early enough. However, once the disease sets in to the point of degeneration, an afflicted person is marked for life.
“There is a social stigma associated with leprosy; the leprosy-afflicted are flung out of society and seen as less than human — they feel worthless,” Antonelli said, describing the organization’s approach as one that strives to promote self-sufficiency.
“We try to teach these people how to take care of themselves because that is what breeds dignity,” she added.
The organization takes a three-pronged approach to serving patients. A boarding school provides education for the children, on-site doctors give care and medical assistance to people living in the colonies and the boarding school and monetary assistance is given to the adults to become more independent.
“The school is a kind of oasis,” Antonelli said. “We have 200 children living on the campus, and most are from the colonies. But we let other children who do not come from the colonies in as well.”
The boarding school provides opportunities for the children of leprosy-affected individuals that were unimaginable a decade ago and aims to diminish the stigma of leprosy. Formerly destined to a fate of begging, they can now go to school, receive an education and have a successful future.
The second prong of the program is devoted to providing medical assistance. Accompanied by volunteers, doctors treat patients at colonies to clean wounds every week.
“They end up really seeing the individual and realize that behind the disease is a person, just like them,” she said.
“And for some of the diseased people, they are being seen and touched as an equal for the first time,” she added.
Meredith Colton ‘13 saw firsthand the plight of leprosy when she travelled to India to volunteer with Rising Star Outreach in the summer of 2009. Colton was heartbroken when she met an elderly woman, Theresa, and learned about her and her husband’s struggle with the disease.
“She [Theresa] spoke about how her own children began treating her husband and her like animals once they contracted leprosy,” Colton said. “It was so hard to see this beautiful, kind woman sharing this story and to realize that this was one of the first times she had ever been able to talk about everything that had happened to her to someone who cared.”
The third and final initiative of Rising Star Outreach is called microlending, which involves loaning small amounts of money to people in the colonies, enabling them to start their own businesses.
“The biggest difference between a beggar and a person with this opportunity is that the latter has a sense of dignity and worth now,” Antonelli said. “They suddenly begin to believe they have something to give and something to offer to people.”
Colton described one of the various constructive and therapeutic approaches to microlending that she witnessed in India.
“There was an art studio where the elderly people of the colony would paint and then sell their art to make money,” she said, describing one particular painter, Dhamoudaran, whom she loved to watch paint. “He used his hands creatively to make up for the havoc leprosy had inflicted on his limbs.”
Rising Star Outreach has made substantial achievements since its establishment, but Antonelli is determined that the organization continue to evolve.
“We need trained teachers who are not only good at teaching, but can teach others how to teach,” she said. “And we always need volunteers. We can find use for anyone’s skills or talents, whether you are a dancer who wants to teach the kids a dance class, or a plumber who can install a plumbing system for the school. Just come over and find a way to help heal.”
Antonelli spoke with certainty when she described how she hopes Rising Star Outreach will be in the future.
“In 20 years, I don’t want my job to exist,” Antonelli said. “Because if we are doing our jobs right, this project should be completed in 20 years. By the year 2020, we want the leprosy affected families of India to become thriving members of society.”
People can become involved in the program by sponsoring a child online, donating monetarily or volunteering in India.