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Online Extra
January 2005

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Straight to the Heart: National Geographic Articles That Made a Difference

Online Extra
Photograph by William Albert Allard


It's hard to believe that something good could come out of the horror that left Ramprasad, an Untouchable, left, with such disfiguring scars, the result of a mob dousing him and his friend Ramlakhan with acid for fishing in a pond used by upper caste villagers in Uttar Pradesh, India. But the kindness of strangers raising money for Ramprasad's reconstructive surgery will eventually give him a new face to present to the world. 

By Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

You know it when it hits you. It's in the photograph you can't get out of your mind. It's in the poignant words that describe unimaginable human suffering or stoic perseverance. It's that conviction that something should be done, and maybe you should be the one to do it.

For years the stories in National Geographic have compelled readers to take action. Here are some from our files. You'll find other noteworthy examples this month in the print magazine's "Behind the Scenes."

Answering the Call

Peggy Penrod, a trainer with the State Teachers Retirement System in Ohio, paused as she thumbed through the pages of "India's Untouchables" in the June 2003 issue. On page 28, the disfigured face of a young man named Ramprasad stared back at her. A mob in Uttar Pradesh had doused him with acid for daring to fish in a pond used by upper caste villagers. "I couldn't believe the caste system still existed," she said. "My heart just ached for this young man and what he was suffering."

Peggy decided to help and began by contacting author Tom O'Neill, photographer Bill Allard, and other magazine staff members for assistance in locating Ramprasad. Her idea was to raise money to pay for corrective surgery and medical care. Despite difficulty connecting with facilitators in India, Peggy forged ahead, paying initial expenses to get Ramprasad to the hospital more than 30 hours away from his home, consulting with doctors, and sponsoring a fund-raiser at her office. And as her heart opened, other hearts opened as well. Syndicated columnist Mike Hardin of the Columbus Dispatch featured the young man's story in a recent article, fellow church member John Pfeifer made his non-profit organization available to collect donations, children from Peggy's church Sunday school sent cards to Ramprasad, and the lead surgeon, Dr. P. K. Bilwani, is donating his services. So far, Peggy's efforts have helped raise nearly $17,000 from people who have heard about Ramprasad's plight.

In the meantime, Ramprasad has gone through plastic surgeries for his burned skin and to detach his eyelid from his eyeball. In late November he returned to the hospital for more eyelid surgery, skin grafting for his cheek, and construction of a prosthetic ear, procedures that will keep him in the hospital for two-and-a-half months. "Doctors have restored enough flexibility to Ramprasad's lips to allow him to smile again," says Peggy. "I hope to see that smile in person one day."


Keeping Him Afloat

The image of disabled Salvadoran fisherman Berti de Jesús Castro being carried on his wife's back sparked a stream of generosity among readers of the September 1995 article, "El Salvador Learns to Live With Peace." Letters and donations arrived at the Society shortly after Tomasz Tomaszewski's photo of him appeared on the opening spread. Concerned donors hoped to buy him a wheelchair, but Castro, who lost both legs to a land mine in 1985, already had one. What he really needed was an outboard motor for his boat. He got it the following January. "Receiving this motor has been like a miracle," he said. "It has changed my family's life."


Warm Comfort

Former nurse Amy Brown came across "Russia Rising" in the waiting room of her office a couple of months after it was published in November 2001. "I had visited Russia about ten years before, and I enjoyed the people and the culture," she says. "So the article got my attention." But it was a Russian doctor's description of conditions at the Regional Children's Hospital in Omsk that really got to her. "The doctor talked about the difficulty of getting basic supplies and medical aid for her young cancer patients. That's something we don't have to worry about here."

Amy put the article aside but began to think about what she could do to help. After a while, it hit her: Make blankets for the children. She spoke to some of the women and her class of teenage girls at church. "We wanted to donate something the hospital could use," she says. "We knew blankets would be easy and fun to make, and the bright colors and patterns would cheer up the children."

The women got started last spring. They worked in the evenings. Some took blankets home and brought them back to Amy. In the meantime, Amy contacted National Geographic's Research Correspondence Division for Dr. Natalia Osmulskaya's address. By the end of summer they were ready to pack up a U.S. Postal Service shipment of 31 soft, fleecy blankets. "I included a letter to the doctor asking her to let us know if the blankets would be useful," she says. "I even suggested that the children could take their blankets home with them when they leave the hospital." Her answer came via e-mail on December 17, 2004, the day the shipment finally arrived at the hospital. Dr. Osmulskaya expressed deep gratitude for the blankets and said that it would be "a real pleasure for us to start a good friendship with the ladies from the church group." That's all Amy and her friends needed to hear. They're ready with needles in hand to start on the next shipment of blankets, with a few baby hats added to the inventory. Says Amy, "Hearing from the doctor was the best Christmas present I could have received."


Outstretched Hand

Writers, photographers, and others who travel on assignment for National Geographic are first to be touched by the compelling stories they encounter. In the early 1990s photographer Reza took a picture of a 12-year-old legless beggar being beaten in the streets of Cairo. It was featured in "Cairo: Clamorous Heart of Egypt" in April 1993. Readers soon began to inquire about the boy. Some even wanted to adopt him. That sent Reza's brother Manoocher Deghati—who had assisted him in the field—on a difficult quest to find one child within a city of 20 million people. After more than three months, Manoocher tracked him down at the home of his mother.

The boy's name is Said, and he had lost his legs trying to jump onto a moving train when he was eight years old. Like so many other children in his condition, he was ruled over by a teenage boy who managed gangs of street beggars. When Said's work didn't measure up, he suffered the leader's punishment.

In finding Said, Manoocher saw an opportunity to help at least one child get off the street. So he set him up in business running his own grocery store near his home. Manoocher visited Said each time he went to Egypt. "The last time I saw him was in 1995," he says. "He had stopped begging, and his shop was running well."


Girl With the Eyes

Who could forget her disarming gaze? Ever since the "Afghan girl" appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic, readers from around the world asked, "Who is she?" Each time photographer Steve McCurry returned to her country, he searched for her. Finally, after 17 years, she was found.

Her name is Sharbat Gula. She is a wife now and a mother, and, like other females in Afghanistan, lived under restrictive Taliban rule until the faction's overthrow in 2001. Author Cathy Newman told Sharbat's story in "A Life Revealed," featured in the April 2002 issue. With her discovery and the Taliban's expulsion, National Geographic seized upon an opportunity and established the Afghan Girls Fund in 2002, making it possible for young women and girls to once again seek an education.

To date, the public has donated more than $900,000 to the cause. Such support has allowed the Society, partnered with the Asia Foundation and Afghan Street Working Children and New Approach (ASCHIANA), to open the National Geographic Center for Girls' Education and Training in Kabul. The center is successfully enrolling Afghan girls, raising their level of academic proficiency, and working to integrate them into the regular school system.

When, as a young girl, Sharbat Gula cast her gaze upon us, she seemed to dare the world to "Do something." As with our motivated readers, we continue to try.


National Geographic Resources

O'Neill, Tom. "Untouchable." National Geographic (June 2003), 2-31. Branded as impure from the moment of birth, one out of six Indians lives—and suffers—at the bottom of the Hindu caste system.They are Untouchable.

Newman, Cathy. "A Life Revealed." National Geographic (April 2002). Seventeen years after she stared out from the cover of National Geographic, a former Afghan refugee comes face-to-face with the world once more.

Montaigne, Fen. "Russia Rising." National Geographic (November 2001), 2-31. A decade has passed since the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and during that time the Russian people have been subjected to an economic and social revolution.

Edwards, Mike. "El Salvador Learns to Live With Peace." National Geographic (September 1995), 108-31.

Theroux, Peter. "Cairo: Clamorous Heart of Egypt." National Geographic (April 1993), 38-69.

Denker, Debra. "Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier." National Geographic (June 1985), 772-97.


Additional Resources

The Gathering Place
120 W. Court St.
Washington Court House, Ohio 43160-0092
Attn: Ramprasad Fund
This website keeps you updated on the plight of Untouchables and efforts made on their behalf.

National Geographic Afghan Girls Fund
National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: 800-373-1717 or  +1-202-862-8638
Fax:  +1-202-429-5709


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