Solvang woman celebrates her birthday with weeks of service

By Linda Johansen

Linda Johansen of Solvang spent her 68th birthday working at the Piyali Learning Centre, a girls school in an impoverished village in India.

My trip to India in January was my 68th birthday present to myself.  Little did I know, it would be one of the most difficult trips I have ever taken, but without a doubt and absolutely, the most meaningful and rewarding trip, and the best birthday gift I have ever received.

Deepa Willingham, a fellow Rotarian and member or our community, by sheer tenacity and determination has accomplished the impossible by building a beautiful private girls school in the midst of poverty and squalor like I have never seen or experienced before. The Piyali Learning Centre is undoubtedly a true miracle.

The education and safety of 250 young girls and 25 young mothers is the top priority of the school. The thought of these beautiful young girls and women getting an education and experiencing their own hopes and dreams is a far cry from the harsh reality of what their dismal life and culture affords them.

Traveling to India and working at the Piyali Learning Centre has been a dream of mine since I started supporting students both personally and through my Solvang Rotary Club nearly a decade ago.

The village of Piyali is infamous for sex trafficking of its young girls. The school created there by Solvang Rotarian Deepa Willingham not only provides a guarded learning facility, but an oasis and safe haven that keeps the girls safe.

The impoverished village of Piyali is infamous for sex trafficking of its young girls, and the school provides not only provides a guarded learning facility but an oasis and safe haven in keeping these girls shielded from the dangers of their everyday life. If the girls are not kidnapped and forced into the sex trafficking world, it is not uncommon for their parents to sell their children for $30 so they can feed the rest of the family. These beautiful and brilliant young girls have absolutely no worth or value in their caste system’s culture.

Each morning our team would take a harrowing, nearly two-hour car trek from Kolkata to the school to work. Thus, we spent almost four hours in the car each day in the most horrendous traffic, dodging cows, horses, goats, people and motorcycles who all think they have the right of way. There is absolutely no pattern to their traffic and the roads are complete chaos with drivers and obstacles coming every which way blaring their horns.

The noise and chaos of the traffic was exhausting, and surviving that each day was a bonus and a complete miracle!

Keller Haws and Owen Andersen were some of the local students who joined the trip to work at the Piyali Learning Centre.

Our work team consisted of Deepa Willingham and her daughter Reena and local students Owen Andersen, Keller Haws, Ruth Beckmen and Lauren Fieldhouse. Annika Paseta, who is a senior at Santa Susana High School and whose mother is member of the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise, completed our student delegation.

Brad Fieldhouse and I were the chaperones and, being the mother of two sons, I relished spending time with the girls. I also had the pleasure of sharing a room for two weeks with Annika, which was also very enriching.

To watch our student team build relationships with the girls at Piyali Learning Centre was an amazing experience. From the moment we arrived at the school that first morning, all of us fell in love with the students at Piyali. We held hands, we played games, we taught dance lessons, we worked on a trash clean-up project in the village, we shared the classrooms and lunch, and we laughed and loved on these beautiful little girls each and every day.

Our most difficult task was visiting the girls’ respective homes. It was heartbreaking to see how little they had and how impoverished they all were. Experiencing their reality outside of the school showed me how utterly amazing all of these young girls are. How brave and how loyal they are to each other. Their tenacity and strength and pure determination to learn and have a better way of life is one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed. That these little girls can find joy in such misery speaks to their brilliance and charisma and true character.

Our most difficult challenge, however, was our last day at school with these beautiful and brilliant little girls. Tears were flowing freely from all of us, as well as from the students and teachers. We all were emotionally and physically spent, and our lives were forever changed by this extremely rewarding experience. I know our entire team felt enriched and will carry the students and teachers from Piyali close at heart forever.

Johansen and her group spent an emotional Sunday morning at Mahavir Seva Sadan, a medical facility where the local doctor donates his time to fit impoverished people with prosthetics.

An emotional Sunday morning was also spent at Mahavir Seva Sadan, a medical facility where the local doctor donates his time to fit and rehab the impoverished with prosthetics. The employees making the prosthetics all have at least one artificial limb.

The prosthetics were donated free on Sundays to the poor in hopes of helping them achieve a more productive and dignified life. The quality of these prosthetics does not remotely compare to what would be standard for us in the United States. The costs of these locally made prosthetics was almost unimaginable to us in that a leg was $50 and an arm with a working hand was $30. That was almost unimaginable and difficult to comprehend and several of us dug into our wallets on the spot and were able to gift them with eight limbs.  It was a beautiful and very rewarding moment.

The group was able to visit a few beautiful temples and to tour Mother Theresa’s house and Victoria Memorial, which proved to be quite a humbling experience.

When the rest of the delegation returned home, I flew to New Delhi and traveled for another week with visits to Akshardham and Lotus Temples, Humayun’s Tomb, and Red Fort and several other tourist points of interest, including a rickshaw ride in Old Delhi.

I visited Jaipur with its numerous magnificent forts and rode an elephant to a hilltop palace.  Visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal, of course, was a highlight. Having this extra week to experience the true grandeur of Indian culture was the perfect ending to my trip.

I also needed this time to heal my wounded heart. Leaving Piyali Learning Centre and all the wonderful teachers, young girls and women that I had come to love really broke my heart.  I will worry about them always and hope they are safe and happy.

In 45 years of travel, I have never seen such concentrated poverty as in India. It truly assaults your senses, and the only thing that makes it somewhat doable is the beautiful colors in the saris that the women wear and the true kindness and gentle spirit of the people.  Bowed heads and clasped hands with greetings of “Namaste” were genuine and heartfelt and truly touched our souls. One couldn’t help caring about these wonderful people.

India has more than a billion people, and a vast number of them live in the dirt and squalor, without electricity or running water.  Their fuel to cook with and for warmth is dried cow dung that is made into patties with a hand print in the middle very similar to what we cherish when we make our newborn baby’s hand or footprint out of clay.  Their cooking stove is two holes in the dirt, and most of their one-room huts rarely have four walls.  It is such a stark contrast to everything about our way of life and living.

A large part of the success of the Piyali Learning Centre goes to our very own Kristine Pedersen, daughter of Bent and Inge-Lise Pedersen. She spent nine years growing the Piyali Learning Centre, serving as in-country director for the last four years. She poured her heart and soul into those girls and into their education and survival, just as Deepa Willingham has championed the school.  Deepa has been presented at the White House and also the United Nations, and spread the word about the cause when she was the district governor for Rotary District 5240.

“The thought of these beautiful young girls and women getting an education and experiencing their own hopes and dreams is a far cry from the harsh reality of what their dismal life and culture affords them,” Johansen said of her life-changing trip to India with students including Annika Paseta, who is a senior at Santa Susana High School.

It is evident that the hard work is making a difference.  The community and the girls are slowly transforming, as was apparent when we installed trash bins on our clean-up day.  A local villager followed us down the street, saying, “We must learn from the girls at Piyali. If they can have pride in our village, we must too.”  I was moved to tears for the hundredth time on this day, for sure.

I would urge everyone to reach out to help.  Sponsoring a young girl at Piyali for the school year is only $375, which includes two uniforms, meals and education. Sponsoring the young mothers is only $175 for a year.

Piyali Learning Centre is always in need of school supplies, campus upgrades and support of their annual budget. PACE Universal and Piyali Learning Centre needs your help.  Their address is 1 North Calle Cesar Chavez, Suite 102, Santa Barbara, 93103.  Their website is