Touching the Untouchables

In 1997 Steve Jobs was back at Apple, and big things were on the horizon for the company. When BYU grad Amy Antonelli (BA ’03) began working as a spokesperson for Apple in 2001 she saw firsthand how Jobs was changing the company. “Steve Jobs had this vision that we were going to change the world,” Antonelli says. “It was actually pretty remarkable, because it was a pretty far-fetched at the time. He was so convincing and his enthusiasm was so contagious. . . . I really learned from Steve how to engage people around a common cause.”

Antonelli had a bright future in Silicon Valley, but her life took a sharp deviation from its planned course at the end of 2004. “. . . At the end of 2004, a tsunami hit India, and it just wiped out the entire Indian Ocean Coast.” Antonelli spontaneously traveled with her friend to India to see how they could help the suffering tsunami victims. “It was horrifying and tragic,” Antonelli recalls. “But it was also really beautiful because there were a lot of people that were coming together to help.”

During her few weeks of service, Antonelli met Becky Douglas, a mother from Atlanta, Georgia. Douglas’s family had started a non-profit called Rising Star Outreach to assist the Indian leprosy beggars, and Douglas took Antonelli to visit a leprosy colony. Antonelli was stunned. “It was the first time that I had ever seen anything like that,” she describes.  “I’d seen some poverty, but I had never seen anything remotely close to what I saw [then] . . . raw sewage all over the ground; the stench was horrifying. All I could see was this God-forsaken disgusting place. All I wanted to do was leave.”

As Antonelli recoiled from the scene, she made eye-contact with a leprous woman. She approached the woman, and they began to talk. Antonelli quickly discovered that leprosy was traditionally seen as a curse in India, so the lepers, “were considered to be defiled and de-human. . . . [They] were literally just thrown away.” Listening intently to the woman, Antonelli touched the woman’s shoulder in a gesture of empathy, and the woman’s reaction changed Antonelli’s life forever. “[The woman’s] shock that someone had touched her was written all over her face. . . [she believed] she was literally untouchable.”

Antonelli had found her purpose. She and Douglas quickly began to develop a vision for Rising Star Outreach: creating a place where lepers could go and feel safe.  When Antonelli arrived back in California she promptly quit her job at Apple and moved back to India to work as Rising Star Outreach’s executive director.

Over the next seven years people from all walks of life came to help with Rising Star Outreach. Padma Venkataraman, daughter of former Indian president Ramaswamy Venkatraman, joined with Rising Star Outreach to provide microloans to lepers who wanted to start their own small businesses. The Peery family helped construct a school for the lepers’ children. The Marriotts helped build boys and girls dormitories for the new school. Many other volunteers flooded Rising Star Outreach’s campus, and Antonelli realized, “Rising Star [is] half about the people we serve and half about the people that [come] to do the serving.” Volunteers’ lives changed through their service, just as Antonelli’s did.

Much of Antonelli’s personal change came from working with the 200+ children in the Peery’s school. Antonelli taught English, provided nutritious meals, and nurtured the children who called her “mommy”. Although Antonelli has never married, she has longed for a family of her own. Looking back, Antonelli now recognizes the real reason she left Apple: “I needed to be a mother, and I wanted to be a mother. . . I didn’t expect my motherhood experience to be that, but I’m so grateful that it was.”

After seven years of service in India, Antonelli decided to return to the United States. She earned an MPA at Harvard to learn more about non-profit management, and spent the next few years jumping between jobs. First Antonelli helped Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandburg design a program to help Facebook employees feel more connected to the company mission. After that she spent a couple years designing a mentoring program for impoverished people until she ultimately ended up working as the CEO of Deseret Network International.

Deseret Network, the parent company for Humanitarian Experience for Youth (or HEFY), seeks to help LDS teens strengthen their testimony and become more involved in the world through humanitarian service. Teens volunteer for two to three weeks helping build schools, homes and medical centers in places such as Tonga, Brazil, Ghana, and Mexico.

Antonelli recalls one young girl who attended an HEFY trip last year, but had struggled on the trip, and had not wanted to attend HEFY at all. When the girl tried to register again this year, Antonelli called the girl’s father to determine if she actually wanted to attend again. Antonelli says, “The dad . . . he paused for a minute and started to cry. . . . He said, ‘When she left last year, she had been so bullied . . . she didn’t want to have anything to do with [the church]. . . . but somehow during that trip, she changed. She’s a totally different person. . . . She cannot wait to go back to that place and serve the people that changed her life so much.’”

The youth aren’t the only ones whose lives are changed through HEFY. “Working for HEFY has really been one of the great honors of my life,” says Antonelli. “I never expected to feel so powerfully the impact of losing yourself in the service of others. To see that happen in the lives of the youth is really humbling.”

In 2017 Antonelli is beginning a new program, Youth Summit Israel, where she will take 30 LDS teens to Jerusalem to meet with other Muslim and Jewish teens. By understanding and contributing to the religious identities of people from different religious backgrounds, the teens will strengthen their own Mormon identity. With over 1,800 kids going on 80 different HEFY trips this summer, Antonelli has a lot to plan and organize, but she is ready to expand her vision for Deseret Network. Antonelli will continue to assist with HEFY and she will also continue to create new programs such as the Youth Summit Israel. As she works to help teens grow, the experience will undoubtedly change Antonelli as well.

Full Name: 
Amy Antonelli
Grad Year: 
BA 2003
College: 
International Studies
Major: 
American Studies
Author: 
Madeline Buhman
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