The atmosphere in southeast India in July is a hot, wet sponge, with average temperatures of 90 degrees spiking occasionally to 113.
Ron and Joyce Hanson arrived in July 2008, prepared for a five-month volunteer stint in the state of Tamil Nadu. Their two-bedroom apartment in no way resembled their home in Laguna Beach, Calif. "The electricity would go on part of the day and off. The only sewer system we had was a ditch. The water system kept breaking down and we had to have water delivered in plastic bottles," Ron recalls. "I remember putting my head in my hands and thinking, 'I'm never going to survive this.'"
They stayed 20 months.
The Hansons, married 51 years, are board members of international nonprofit Rising Star Outreach. With medical and educational programs and microfinancing, it works to integrate into Indian society people affected by leprosy (Hansen's disease).
"We're working on breaking the stigma of leprosy, as much as anything," Joyce says. "Many of the children have leprosy, but it can be cured easily. They don't have the physical damage of their grandparents and parents. If these children can be educated and get a good job, the stigma can be cured."
An Atlanta woman named Becky Douglas and four friends started Rising Star Outreach in 2002 in memory of Douglas's daughter, who had donated money to orphans in India. The Hansons met Douglas a short time later, and they joined the RSO board in 2005 before a first brief visit to India in 2007.
In 2008 the couple returned to Tamil Nadu to oversee development of the RSO campus. At that time, the facility consisted of two hostels (one for boys and one for girls) and a small elementary school. After Ron raised his head from his hands in those first muggy days, they went to work?getting up at 5:30 a.m. with the students and falling exhausted into bed by 9 p.m.
By the time they left, classrooms, laboratories and a library had been added, as well as a kitchen, dining hall and living quarters for volunteers. Eight of the Hansons' 20 grandchildren have volunteered in India. A son-in-law oversaw development of what Ron calls "the most beautiful sewer system anyone in our part of India has ever seen."
Each year, the school adds another grade level?currently it is K through 9. Close to 200 students are enrolled. "The children are beautiful, they're bright, they're caring, they come ready to be taught," Joyce says. "We want them to be upwardly looking. We'd like them to see they have opportunities."
The Hansons moved back to California in March 2010 because they didn't want to neglect their own family. But they return every three or four months to India, and they encourage others to volunteer. (The cost of a three-week session is $1,750, which covers expenses of the volunteer and helps cover the costs of the programs in India.) Joyce guarantees the experience is "life-changing."
Susan Caba, a 1997 Knight fellow, is a journalist based in St. Louis.