Minneapolis lawyer Gale D. Pearson traveled with her family to Dehradun, India, to study the stigma of leprosy and work at a school established for educating children of people with the disease. It was a life-changing and unexpected trip.
Ms. Pearson’s daughter, Heather, was a pre-med student at Wellesley College, where she was in charge of organizing student trips for “service learning.” When several students dropped out of the planned trip to India, Ms. Pearson and her family said they would go.
Heather’s research led her to the KHEL School – KHEL for Kindness, Health, Education, and Laughter. Coincidently, the school was started in 1982 by an Indian family whose relatives live in Minneapolis and are friends of Ms. Pearson’s family.
After a year of preparation, including extensive interviewing by the school to ensure that that family would be a good fit with the students, the family made the journey in 2012. They discovered an isolated community where their family of four was able to eat on $25 per day.
At the KHEL school, Ms. Pearson focused on inspiring the young girls to develop career aspirations and finish their education. Unfortunately, many of the girls in this community are required to give up their education after 8th grade so that they can help support their families and meet cultural expectations.
Meanwhile, Heather, who was studying why leprosy has not been eradicated, was also able to visit the school and share what it was like to have a mom with a career. She encouraged the girls to follow their dreams. During the school visits, Heather and her younger brother Brandon (17 at the time) taught the students American playground games. Their father, Tom Pearson, who works in the field of television production, spoke to students about his career. He brought his camera along for the trip and filmed the students. One day they may produce a PSA to share the needs of this remote community with the outside world.
“We’d like to bring awareness about this community and school to other people to see if others would like to help them,” said Ms. Pearson. “
While they were there, Ms. Pearson and her family donated playground equipment; but there are other needs. The teachers are enthusiastic and love their jobs, but are paid very little. Pencils are used down to the last inch. Power outages are common, and teachers often carry on a lecture in the dark.
“They could use a generator,” said Ms. Pearson, who plans on returning and staying connected with this community. “Each year I’d like to contribute something. KHEL is a charity that doesn’t make a lot of noise.”
Ms. Pearson is determined to increase the volume – not just on the school, but also on another KEHL Charities initiative.
Several years ago, KHEL purchased land and constructed homes for people with leprosy. Under the caste system, once people are diagnosed with leprosy, they lose all their property. Prior to the KHEL buildings, these individuals had no homes. Sadly, they must still resort to begging because no one will hire people with leprosy or their family members.
Despite the fact that leprosy is curable and one of the least contagious communicable diseases, the stigma surrounding the disease runs high. Gale and her family challenged the myths and stigma surrounding leprosy and visited several colonies while in India.
“I felt like I was traveling back 2000 years,” said Ms. Pearson.
Stones were thrown by people fearful of leprosy as Ms. Pearson and her family made their way from the main village into the leper colonies. The isolated residents welcomed them with fresh flower leis.
To learn more please visit KHEL online.