BRATTLEBORO — Although many New England cities have sister communities, most of them are in Europe. In contrast, the Brattleboro Sisters are communities located in Haiti, El Salvador, Kenya, and India, plus two Native American communities and a community in New York State, connected to Brattleboro through the Charter of Compassion. The fifth anniversary of these sister community relationships is being celebrated through a series of interviews with Brattleboro representatives in these communities. This interview with Teresa Savel, Brattleboro’s Ambassador to Marigold Village, is the seventh.
Our Indian sisterhood and its unusual history
Brattleboro’s sister community, Marygold Village (MGV), revolves around what used to be a leper village in Hemachandrapuram, Telangana, India. The population of Hemachandrapuram is similar to that of Brattleboro. Members of our community have been involved with Marygold since 1995.
Interestingly, the roots of leprosy dating back 4000 years can be found in India. As most of us know, it is an infectious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes and nerves, causing discolouration, disfigurement and deformities. Its modern incarnation is known as Hansen’s disease. An estimated 200,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with the disease annually – several hundred cases actually exist in the US. Today, leprosy is curable with treatment, but work is needed to dispel the myths that allow the stigma of leprosy to persist.
Marygold, a name given to the community by its dedicated supporters, is now in its third generation. It is a great joy for the local monks, the sisters of St. Vincent de Paul and the Carmelite monks collaborating with MGV to see the physical deformity caused by leprosy eradicated. But while physical healing has taken place, the stigma remains – and adversely affects residents’ well-being in so many ways.
The stigma of leprosy and how to deal with it
Stigma is a set of negative and often unfair beliefs about others that can seriously harm and harm the development of individuals and communities. But such stigma can be taken on with a commitment of curiosity, commitment, and a desire to learn and grow from what is learned.
When stigma is not approached in such a positive way, it can lead, unsurprisingly, to problematic behavior among the stigmatized. In MGV, these include antisocial behavior such as begging and aggression. However, it has been so encouraging to see how over a period of years this behavior has decreased. The sisters and monks there have helped to transform these habits through patience, a keen interest in the physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being of each individual, and building genuine relationships with these people.
Signs of hope?
While Marygold Village’s predecessors relied entirely on charity through begging, this younger generation is invested in standing on their own using their talents and hard work. The livelihood of each individual is promoted through education, academically, professionally and spiritually. Most engage in religious practices such as Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
These young adults engage in more inclusive activities through intergenerational community celebrations and now even with other villages where celebrations include their innovative music, dance, singing and art. They are indeed a talented group of aspiring individuals. And it is most impressive because this energy springs from thousands of years of ancestral suffering, stigma and imposed isolation.
Does Merigold’s story resonate with other experiences?
Yes, another international experience and local.
We are in touch with a project organized by librarians in Rwanda who combine storytelling for local children with the creation of a safe and respectful space to share their personal stories. A 9-year-old boy, inspired by a story of courage, talks about his own challenges: being abandoned by his parents and becoming the sole caretaker of three younger siblings. She admitted that education would be her salvation. She started approaching her neighbors for money for school fees and food. The stigma surrounding this child’s circumstances can easily disempower her. Instead, her remarkable resilience and determination generated responses that met the basic needs of these children. And the young girl went back to school.
I experienced something quite similar here in Brattleboro when I met a young homeless woman. She was able to move beyond the debilitating effects of the trauma and, in turn, the stigma attached to her status and past abuse, in part through the care of many people in our remarkable community. These people made it clear to her that she was valued.
The young woman has clearly benefited and is now finding ways to share her gifts and talents. I believe we benefited as well.
The future of Brattleboro’s relationship with Marygold
What I value most about our friendships at Marygold Village is that we cultivate curiosity together. And how can we not be filled with hope when we see the way old patterns are changing? Education and interpersonal experiences seem central to this evolution.
I can imagine Brattleboro sponsoring educational scholarships at Marygold. I think it would be fun to organize a virtual sharing of sewing techniques, material recycling and organic farming. The exchange in the classroom seems natural. And the Americorps volunteers coming to Brattleboro for the next academic year may also be able to help us raise some funds for an actual exchange student. Through it all, we can share our stories and develop meaningful personal relationships.
Submissions from Brattleboro area residents, no longer than 650 words, should be emailed to: [email protected] or mailed to: Compassion Story of the Month, PO Box 50, Marlboro, VT 05344. Include your name, address, phone number and email address.