From US with love: Young Santas lift kids’ spirits at Bengal school

Piyali (South 24 Parganas): For kids living at a home for financially disadvantaged children, it has never been this good. As the world readies to party and usher in the New Year, the children studying at Piyali Learning Centre (PLC) are enjoying the company of new friends who have brought for them New Year gifts from a faraway land.

Five children from California in the US, including one aged only nine, have travelled all the way to Piyali, a village 60km from Kolkata in South 24 Parganas, to embrace a world that is vastly different from the one they live in.

The youngest of the five, Sophia Elliot, has gifted a pair of swings to the centre from money she made selling lemonade in front of her house in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “I am so happy and excited to see them enjoy the swing. I will raise more funds once I return home so that I can contribute further in making them happy,” Sophia told Times of India. She is here with her mother Leanne, a wedding planner.

Kyle O’Neil, a high school student from California, is delighted to spend the fortnight with new friends and return enriched by the experience. “My parents have always encouraged me to learn beyond classrooms. I am looking forward to a great time at PLC,” he said. The school is run by PACE Universal.

Nolan Morrison, also a high school student from California, had formed his impressions about Kolkata from reading Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’. But in reality, he has encountered a city that is very different. “I had imagined Kolkata would be a sad city with slums all over. Instead, I am in a city that is vibrant and alive. It is amazing to see the people here, particularly the children,” he said.

Two others — Erinn Callaghan and Olivia Berman — plan to speak to their classmates and other students at their school in California about PLC and its residents and look to mop up more funds so that they can buy new gifts.

For the likes of Dolon Roy, who was one among the first batch of the school, the centre has not only given her a new life but has helped her earn respect. She had a troubled childhood but PLC helped her shape her life. She now teaches in the school. “I do not know where I would have landed if it was not for PLC. The school has come as a boon for many like me in the locality,” Dolon told TOI in chaste English.

“While most of the students return back home after school hours, we have started a safe home where we house the girls vulnerable to trafficking,” said Deepa Biswas Willingham, the woman behind the school. Born in Kolkata and now settled in the US, Willingham’s early education in the city started off under the stewardship of Mother Teresa.

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