They are called the "untouchables" by many in their society.
Seven of them have parents with leprosy. Four have physical disabilities. Many are orphans. All are abandoned. Nine-year-old Antoniayammal's father is spending life in prison. Fifteen-year-old Devi has progeria, the disease which causes rapid aging. Her legs are also paralyzed from childhood polio a disease only read about in the history books in developed countries.
And they're the lucky ones. These are the children of the Seventh Star Home in a small rural village about 62 miles from Madras in southern India. Most "untouchables" in India adults and children alike live on the streets. The 19 Seventh Star children have food, a chance for some education and a roof over their heads albeit the old home has a mud wall, a tile roof and a cracked floor.
As a young man, Paul Vijaykumar cried when he saw such children. As an adult and a returned missionary attending the Madras Branch, Bangalore India District, he sold his wedding ring to help them. Since 1999, he and his wife, Umarani, have run the Seventh Star Home. They also call it home. Brother and Sister Vijaykumar and their 5-year-old son, Benjamin Grace Paul, live, eat and sleep with their "other" children.
"Heavenly [Father] made me to think about this from my childhood, and He is the one helping me all the way from the time of troubles and difficulties," Brother Vijaykumar, who served in the Singapore Mission from 1988-1990, wrote in correspondence to the Church News. "None of the caste and community . . . worry about their own people who are physically and mentally affected. I want to bring and deliver such children from their awful situation, darkness life to the peaceful Lord's kingdom by doing good Samaritan services and with teaching the fulness of the gospel as the Lord's Spirit guides me.
"The Seventh Star Children's Home caters [to] physically handicapped, visually handicapped, orphan, low caste children, widow's children and . . . leprosy patients' children who were most deprived and left alone and abandoned. It provides boarding, lodging, uniform and education entirely free."
Children of the Seventh Star Home, which is registered legally with the local government, attend a nearby government school. In the evenings, Brother Vijaykumar explained, the children learn moral discipline, sing songs and study the scriptures. "We are teaching English language along with their school subjects every evening," he added.
They also play board games and ball. They eat together in the living area and at nights, Brother and Sister Vijaykumar and the children roll out their mats to sleep. In the morning, the children head to school. Those who can't walk are carried on Brother Vijaykumar's back.
During the rainy season, the roof leaks constantly. In his correspondence, Brother Vijaykumar described how insects, cockroaches and scorpians crawl in the cracked walls. "Scorpians bit me thrice when I stop them [from biting] the children," he wrote. "At the time heavy raining water entered in the living place, . . . snakes were entered. . . . Children and myself need to sit in the corner where there is no water leakage."
That's not all. Along with serving as president of the elders quorum in the Madras Branch (Sister Vijaykumar is a counselor in the branch Relief Society), Brother Vijaykumar takes medicine, bandages and food to two leprosy colonies. When supplies are more readily available, he visits four other colonies.
Brother Vijaykumar dresses their ulcered wounds. A nurse helps him give medical injections. Where does he get these supplies? Ambulance service is scarce in India, so when he sees automobile accident victims on the side of the road, he gives them first aid, then "carries" them to the nearest hospital. In return, the hospital staff allows him to take a bandage, a roll of gauze or some medicine. He stores these in a black box, and when the box is full he visits the colonies.
The children do what they can do help provide for themselves, Brother Vijaykumar wrote. "The children . . . produce and grow their own food like paddy, groundnut, coconut and vegetables." They also raise chicken and sheep when possible.
"This way the children's home earns some money by its own instead of always expecting donations."
But it's not always enough. In March 2001, during Church services in the Madras Branch, Brother Vijaykumar met Becky Douglas, a member of the Peachtree Corners Ward, Roswell Georgia Stake, who was in Madras with a non-profit organization helping another local orphanage. Through their meeting, Sister Douglas and other members began providing some supplies, such as food, clothing, medicine and even wheelchairs, as well as their time, to the Seventh Star Home. Some members in Roswell, Ga., crocheted 70 leprosy bandages for Brother Vijaykumar to take to the colonies.
Brother Vijaykumar is simple in his response to why he and his wife care for their "children." He quotes Mosiah 2:17:
"And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God."
Some information about Brother Vijaykumar's work with leprosy patients was contributed by Dianna Douglas, Becky Douglas's daughter.