When we arrived in China, specifically Hong Kong, we arranged a meeting with members of the board, to introduce us to the project before we left for Sichuan and the villages we would be helping in. What struck me from this meeting with Tony, Theresia, and Nick, was the kindness that they showed us and the immense passion that they had for this project. We were strangers to them and them to us, but they met us as if we were old friends, and we were doing them some incredible favour! When we finally got around to talking about the project, we learned a lot that wasn’t possible in anything but a face to face meeting. We learned that they weren’t just a “giving out hand-outs” type of organization. They wanted to target grassroots issues, and hoped that one day the project was sustainable without them. I admired this greatly. Without a doubt, this long-term plan is much more challenging than simply giving out handouts, but they were willing to overcome the challenge to have a greater impact.
The next day, as we arrived at the airport to fly to Sichuan, we met another incredible person, Seb. Seb was to be our guide of sorts throughout the next 8 days. We also met with Paco, a local Rotaractor who had decided to come on this trip with us. They, as the members of the board were, were also kind and passionate. I began to think kindness and passion was going to be a theme of everyone we met on this trip (and it was!). Once our flight landed in Chengdu, we boarded a train to the main project office, where we met the staff and prepared for the main part of the trip: visiting 4 villages in the next 6 days.
In the first village we visited, we had the opportunity of speaking with some of the villagers, so we could hear their stories. They had been isolated many years ago, leaving behind all their lives simply because they had contracted a disease that had an associated stigma. I began to think how unfair this was. They, first, were battling a disease that caused them loss of limbs, sight and health. And second, they had to lose their families, lives and homes because isolation was easier than treatment. It was also difficult for them to rejoin society, as the stigma was still present and they themselves had fears of being shunned a second time. The Leprosy Project has now cured them of the disease, but, due to their isolation for many years, issues of nutrition, secondary infections, and dealing with physical disabilities still lingered.
These are also the issues The Leprosy Project works on. They teach villages about nutrition, and how to cook so that they get all the nutrients they need. The second village we visited was much larger, and had many children. The issue of malnourishment was easy to see in these kids. They were skinny, small, and many looked 3 or 4 years younger than their actual age. We spent our time in this village in a cooking contest. This was a fun way for the project staff to teach the village about proper, nutritious cooking that would be healthy for them and the children. I was sad to see the kids in the condition they were in, but encouraged by the work we had done that day. With the continued help of the project, the situation will get better.
In the next two villages, we focused on hygiene. Some of the villager’s rooms were often dirty, unhygienic and perfect resting places for bugs and disease. Cleaning these were very important. Due to the leprosy, many of the people affected by leprosy (or PALs, a term created to remove the stigma of “lepers”) had lost feeling in their limbs, and if they ever got cut they would risk ulcers. They cannot feel the ulcers and end up having them for long periods of time, a large health risk. By teaching them about personal hygiene, and how to keep the village clean, the villagers are able to notice cuts more often (because they are paying attention) and risk is decreased due to cleaner conditions.
It would be impossible for me to talk about everything we learned over these 8 days, but I will say, again, that I have never seen such a passionate and caring group. This starts with the board, and stretches right over into the staff, and even to us volunteers. Targeting the grassroots issues is not easy, but, I think, it’s the best way to go about any problem.
I also want to thank everyone that worked to allow us to go on this trip: the board, the staff, as well as the many local volunteers (who I have yet to mention) who acted as translators for us, and became lifelong friends. A special thanks to the Rotary Club of Vancouver who sponsored for this trip.
I’ll finish with the moment that impacted me the most. This moment showed me that the project is about more than just nutrition, hygiene, and dealing with disease. In the very last village we visited, one of the PALs came to see us and one of the staff members had a conversation with her, and translated her words to us. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I do remember the lady telling the staffer to tell us (loosely translated) “not to come near me, because I will get them sick”. This lady had been cured of leprosy, and would not have been at all contagious. But, because of all the unfair treatment she has received in her life, she just assumed that we had to avoid her, as if she wasn’t just another person. I realized then that on top of all the other work that they do, The Leprosy Project is about letting the PALs know that we do care about them, and that they are nothing to be afraid of, they are just like us.
Rotaract Club of Vancouver