The Main Objective of the Damien the Leper Society is to ease human suffering from leprosy by helping to stop the progression of the disease and by ministering to its residual effects.
We envision a world where people who are afflicted with the disease are cured and helped to live in dignity with the disease residual effects. We envision that the children of lepers are provided with proper nutrition, education, and given a chance for a life without leprosy.
We truly believe that in doing the above, we are helping the least of our brothers and sisters to be free of suffering from this ancient disease.
In serving the lepers, the Damien the Leper Society has adopted a holistic approach. In every leper, D.L.S. sees a total human being, not just a creature with a disease to be cured. We believe that, in order to help the lepers to live the lives free of leprosy, we not only have to bring the cure but also have to help the lepers to live with the after effect and to prevent leprosy from spreading to the next generations.
The year was 1995. Fr. Viet, who lived in Florida, was visiting his family in Vietnam. While he was there, an event happened that forever changed his life. One of his family friends told him about the lepers living hidden lives in the forest. He was told that the government had closed the leprosaria and these people had nowhere to go. When he heard of such suffering, Fr. Viet felt that he had to find out for himself.
What Fr. Viet found was human suffering beyond comprehension. The lepers were driven out of the leprosaria and deep into the jungle. Living far from society, the lepers barely survived with little food, dirty water, no means for sanitation, and no medication for their affliction. The conditions had gotten so dire that, when a leper mother with an infant died, the other lepers often placed a leg of the deceased mother across the throat of her infant. The infant would then die and would be buried along with the mother. Stripped of all their humanities, those lepers had lost all hope.
The images of what he saw haunted Fr. Viet. A question kept coming up in his mind: “Now that you know about their suffering. What are you going to do to help them?”
Fr. Viet then contacted some of the nuns in Vietnam, whom he knew to have tried to help the lepers, to seek their counsel on what he could do. The nuns responded with the following information.
- Beginning in 1975, the government started to close the leprosaria. The lepers had no place to live but for the most remote areas in the jungle. Effort to bring them back to society would be very difficult. It was better to help them where they were.
- Medication for the lepers was available from the World Health Organization but no one would bring the medication to the lepers.
- Helping the lepers was not a high priority issue for the government in Vietnam. Many lepers would perish long before we succeed in convincing the government to act.
- Just as important as the medication were the supplies that would enable the lepers to build their communities and to support themselves in those remote locations.
Fr. Viet came back to Florida with many pictures of what he saw, pictures of unimaginable suffering, and an intense desire to help the lepers, whom he considered the very least of our brothers and sisters. Even more haunting to Fr. Viet were images of beautiful children living nearly naked in the forests, children who were destined to the lives of lepers. It was the desire to change the future for these children that inspired the birth of our society.
When the society was first started in 1995, it was just a group of friends with the desire to help. The group gathered $500 and the effort to help the lepers was under way. In 1996, the society was officially formed as Blessed Damien Society. St Damien of Molokai was select as the society name sake because he had devoted his life to helping the lepers and died with the very dreaded disease that he had fought so hard.
In the very first trip to Vietnam, Fr. Viet also met Dr. Mai-Khanh, who independently had become interested in helping the lepers as well. Together, this dynamic duo was our society first field agents to minister to the lepers in Vietnam. In those early years, the trips they made to Vietnam were very difficult and dangerous since they were traveling into remote regions of Vietnam to conduct activities not sanctioned by the government at that time.
Starting with those dangerous trips in those early years, our activities in the field now have become more established. The recognition by the local government in recent years has enabled us to plan and execute our mission and to establish permanent local field agents to constantly over see our activities. The maturity of our society has also enabled us to attempt larger projects, most notably our latest project that brought clean water to more than 1000 people in two leper villages.
In the US, the first board of the society in 1996 had 10 people, some of whom still serve today. For many years the society did not have a permanent place and had to be headquartered at various churches in Florida and also at the house of Sarah McCurdy, one of our founding members. It wasn’t until 2007 that we secured our current headquarter in Pensacola, Florida.
The maturity of our field activities was also matched here at home. In the early years, our fund raising mail-outs were done at various churches and schools in Florida. Each mail-out involved preparation of more than 20,000 pieces of mail to bring our society information and brochures to our potential donors. Yet the mail-outs were often done by volunteers who often were doing it for the first time. These volunteers, most notably the children of the Church of Little Flowers in Florida, tried with all their hearts but still made many mistakes in these mail-outs. Fortunately for our society, the fund raising effort was managed by Rose Matthews, who until this day constantly searches for ways to improve our effort. Under Rose’s direction, and with the availability of working space in our permanent headquarter, our fundraising effort has been progressing smoothly in recent years.
In 2009, our society had decided to extend our services to areas outside of Vietnam as well. While Vietnam continues to be our main focus, we began our effort to help the lepers in the Philippines. Along with the extension of our effort, we also changed and registered our name as Damien the Leper Society.
Starting with a humble effort of $500 of help to the lepers in 1995, Damien the Leper Society now sponsors projects that total as much as $150,000 per year depending on the results of our fund raising effort. While our desire to help the lepers remains unwavering, our future rests in your hands, the hands of our our benefactors. Please join us in our effort in helping the very least of our brothers and sisters – the lepers.