Santa Barbara, Calif.-- The United Nations Association of Santa Barbara and Tri Counties awarded local humanitarian Deepa Willingham its 2018 Santa Barbara Peace Prize on World Peace Day, September 21.
Willingham, a Solvang resident, was honored for her life’s work to help end human trafficking by empowering women.
“$455 billion dollars are spent on defense and war, and only $37 billion would take care of all the humanity conditions,” Deepa said to a small group of people before the award ceremony.
Deepa is the founder of PACE Universal, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending human trafficking and uplifting communities through the education of girls and women living in extreme poverty.
In a fireside chat prior to the award ceremony, Willingham talked about her life. She was born and raised in Calcutta, India, where she studied under Mother Teresa during her primary and secondary education. Her parents knew Gandhi, she said.
According to the Rotary, PACE Universal is a sustainable village rehabilitation model supported by an initial $330,000 Health, Hunger and Humanity Grant from the Rotary Foundation in 2009. The grant completely rehabilitated the village of Piyali Junction by bringing health and dental care, literacy sanitation vocational training and micro-lending to help change the face of poverty in that community.
Since that initial grant, Willingham stated she was able to earn several more grants and help replicate this model in other areas.
During her formative years, Willingham said she realized just how poverty can cripple a community. She used her knowledge and skill set to continue her graduate education in the United States and worked in healthcare management after pursuing a Master’s and Ph.D.
“It’s important to educate women,” Willingham explained in an interview. “Before they were educated, they would not be able to recognize problems. They wouldn’t know where to go for resources or help. They would be abused and unable to be free,” Willingham continued. “When we educate our women, we give them a voice, we give them the ability to articulate issues and problem solve. They have resources and they use them to strengthen themselves and those they love.”
PACE Universal’s website says the organization provides education to women and girls, vocational training, micro-loans and upgrading the living conditions through holistic village rehabilitation, thus helping eradicate poverty, injustice, non-human environments and conditions which may lead to human trafficking.
Willingham said that “peace is not just the absence of war. It is for us to actively create a lack of poverty, lack of injustice, lack of non-human environment and lack of hopelessness for our fellow citizens.”
Willingham is the winner of many humanitarian awards including “Women of Action” Honoree at the White House in 2014, Time Now – Global Amazing Indian citation from the Times of India in 2015 and one of three “Inspiring Women of Action” at World Bank’s celebration of International Women’s Day in Washington D.C., 2016.
In an interview with Rotary Club, Willingham was asked why she started this school for girls in the country of her birth. She replied, “It is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream…to give back the gift of education, particularly to girls. Girls’ education in many severely poverty stricken areas like India, is still a luxury for far too many and it is certainly not a given. And yet when girls are educated, they grow up to be responsible citizens, changing not only their own lives but also the lives of their children and their communities. When it is such a win-win situation, how can I not do it?”
“You know what I’m most proud of?” Willingham asked the people around her. “Doing it all without bribery.” She went on to explain bribery was a major part of getting construction and approval for any bureaucratic need. “It was hard, but it was possible with the buy-in of the local leaders and the women in the community.” She was proud of her ability to overcome adversity and find a new solution where there were none before.
World Peace Day was created by Robert Muller in 1982. Originally named International Day of Peace by the UNited Nations, it was a day meant to have a cease fire around the world. Robert Muller passed on the eve of World Peace Day in 2010. His wife, Barbara Gaughen-Muller carried on his dream and became president of the Santa Barbara and Tri-Counties United Nations Association, where she takes an active role in current events and activities dedicated to improving world peace and harmony.