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Laxmi Thami peeked out of her window to look at the garden tunnels in her backyard, where she grows varieties of vegetables in her village in Nepal. Trained as a Village Model Farmer by Helen Keller Intl, she shared her impressive knowledge of nutrition and climate-sensitive farming techniques with her neighbors. Laxmi has spent many years serving her community this way – helping farming families improve their agricultural production and their diets in a region struggling with high rates of malnutrition. But as she looked out at her garden, Laxmi found herself feeling helpless. She noticed how all her vegetable plants – the primary source of her family’s income – were wilting and in need of immediate attention. This was through no fault of her own.

“For me, my vegetable garden is my labor of love. And seeing it wither away broke my heart.”

Laxmi Thami

When her daughter become the first person in the village to become infected with COVID-19, and Laxmi and her family dutifully quarantined themselves for two weeks. She let others know of her daughter’s diagnosis and assured them that her family was taking all health precautions. While she could have chosen to keep the diagnosis a secret, “my conscience would never let me act that way. In my community, people help each other out; that is the essence of our living. I informed my neighbors about the situation, and my family remained in isolation for over two weeks,” she said.

Neighbors’ growing fears about COVID-19 prevented Laxmi from tending her garden

But Laxmi didn’t expect that after years of service to her community, her family would be ostracized by neighbors who were afraid and misunderstood how COVID-19 spread. Even after Laxmi’s family isolated and tested negative, people from her village restricted them from stepping outside of their home, due to mounting fears and growing stigmas.

“My neighbors accused me of bringing misfortune to the village. Their worry was largely because my daughter was the first person in the community to get infected by the virus. Due to a lack of precise information during the onset of the pandemic, my neighbors believed that we would spread the virus despite testing negative.”

Friends and neighbors suddenly were monitoring her every move, and her garden began to fall into ruin. “Every time I begged them to allow me to at least water my garden, sharp insults would appear,” she said.

Combating stigma with kindness and factual information

Eventually, Laxmi made the courageous decision to combat misinformation about the coronavirus, and meet her neighbors head on with kindness and factual information. “After experiencing the firsthand effects of COVID-19 stigma, I knew I had to burst the stigma before it got the best of us.”

“Life tests you in many silly ways, but the answer is always to remain kind.”

Laxmi Thami

She and her family members finally stepped out of the house and began to work tirelessly on their garden tunnels, which were in dire need of revival. Every time someone would accuse them of spreading the virus, she would bravely try to teach them and respectfully urge them not to believe misinformation about COVID-19. “It wasn’t easy initially, but I knew I had to summon enough strength and do the right thing,” she says.

Fighting through the adversity, Laxmi managed to harvest enough to feed her family and sell some of her crops to stay afloat.

Leading with empathy and care

When a second wave of COVID-19 hit Nepal, several of her neighbors became ill. These were some of the same neighbors who had previously accused Laxmi’s family of spreading the virus. Rather than be upset, Laxmi treated these neighbors with empathy and compassion. She and her husband stepped in to hoe neighbors’ fields and save their harvest when they were hospitalized and undergoing COVID-19 treatment.

As a Village Model Farmer living in a community reliant on agriculture, Laxmi knew that her community would need support recovering from the economic effects of the pandemic. Not only did she tend the land for those who were ill, but she coordinated with a local community group to distribute essential goods and food. A woman who had previously called her daughter a “witch” after being infected with COVID-19 shed a tear when Laxmi showed up to tend her kitchen garden while the woman’s entire family remained isolated.

“Life tests you in many silly ways, but the answer is always to remain kind,” beams Laxmi. This is the spirit of Helen Keller in action — a spirit that lives on because of caring people like you.

With hunger mounting, exacerbated by COVID-19, the time to take action is now. As Laxmi shows us, there’s no obstacle our partner communities can’t work around with the right resources and expertise.

Our global community of compassionate individuals is already making a difference – but there’s so much more to be done. We can change the future if we respond effectively and powerfully now.