From history stories learned in school it seems improbable that anyone would ever hug a leper.
The 21st century reality in the city of Vizianagaram, in the southern India state of Andhra Pradesh, is much the same.
Having leprosy makes you an outcast – your family and your community literally throw you out.
But Louise Timmins, who heads the UK arm of Brighter Future International, is happy to travel 5,000 miles from her Lincolnshire home to help people in leprosy colonies and, yes, give them a comforting hug.
Louise said: “If there’s one thing that we all make a real point of doing is shaking their hands and putting our arms around people.
“Ninety-five per cent of the population worldwide is immune to leprosy – it’s a disease linked to extreme poverty and serious malnutrition.”
If there’s one thing that we all make a real point of doing is shaking their hands and putting our arms around people.Louise Timmins, who heads the UK arm of Brighter Future International
The last time Louise was in India with fellow volunteers, the head of a leprosy colony told them: “Our families have rejected us, the world has rejected us and yet you come all the way from England and sit with us.”
The devastating effects of leprosy are all the more tragic because these days the disease can be cured with a course of antibiotics but the fear of being an outcast means sufferers seek medical help too late.
Louise explains: “The issue is people are so frightened to come forward that by the time they do have the drug all of the effects of leprosy have set in.”
Leprosy is triggered by bacteria in the air, water or soil, and damages the sufferer’s nerves, notably in the hands and feet. Untreated the disease leads to disabling physical deformities.
Louise and local Brighter Future supporters will be distributing protective sandals to leprosy sufferers when they visit Vizianagaram next month.
Louise explained: “People can get very badly injured feet because they can’t feel it when they cut themselves.”
She works for the Peterborough-based Leprosy Mission and came across the charity Brighter Future on one of her trips to India around eight years ago, which makes her role as volunteer head of its UK operation a sort of busman’s holiday.
Brighter Future’s work extends to HIV sufferers, widows and orphans and people with disabilities.
The charity also gives people a way of breaking out of poverty through a micro-finance programme, which offers small loans and training to individuals.
In Vizianagaram, most people survive on less than £1 a day – that’s too little to provide for an education or treatment for illness, which means sometimes people die from normally treatable illnesses.
Louise is married to Lincolnshire Police Superintendent Paul Timmins and his support for Brighter Future last year included jumping out of a plane at 13,000ft because he wanted to ‘turn heartache to joy for people in need’.
Visiting India gives people a new understanding of poverty.
Louise explains: “It really does drive home how fortunate we are in the UK. While definitely there is poverty here, it’s nothing like the level you see in India.
“For me, the biggest emotional thing is to see the sadness in people’s eyes, the people who have leprosy who have been thrown out of their homes, their families and their communities.”
While in Vizianagaram next month, Louise and fellow charity trustees and supporters will help renovate one of Brighter Future’s homes for orphans who have HIV – supporters will also meet the children they sponsor.
Globetrotting Louise also has an April family holiday in the diary, which will see the couple’s daughter Marika, six, visiting her home country, Nepal, for the first time since she was adopted, and a second trip with the Leprosy Mission to India in November.
Louise says: “I don’t normally do quite so many trips a year.”
○ For more information visit www.brighterfutureinternationaltrust.co.uk
The website’s ‘How Can I Help’ tab outlines gift options for changing lives from as little as £7, to buy a potentially life-saving mosquito net, to £1,000 for a new home.
You can also donate cash and every single penny goes to the people helped by the charity.