It was under a banyan tree that it all began. In the town where Rajen Thapa grew up in Eastern Nepal there was no football field, no tennis court, no swimming pool – just the banyan tree. In the evening, after they were done helping their parents in the rice paddies and with the water buffalo and cows, the children would gather under the tree to tell stories. The story Thapa told was different. Unlike many of the other children in his town, he went to school. There he wore a uniform and socks and shoes and met children from other areas. At school he learned that there was more to the world than just the things he knew at home, where he helped his parents and his five siblings on the family farm.

“That enlightened me,” says Thapa, Centennial District Governor of 4-C3 in the California Bay Area. “I didn’t want to keep that in me only. So I started sharing.”

First, he shared it with the other children. Then he told their parents. He explained that he still helped his parents in the field. School didn’t start until ten in the morning, so there was plenty of time for the children to care for the livestock and tend the fields before they went to study. No one instructed Thapa to do this – not a teacher or a parent – it was just something he felt compelled to do.

“I wanted a bright future along with other children,” says Thapa, who is now 55. “And if they only work in the field, the future wouldn’t be bright.”

His community service and academic success earned him a scholarship at a Catholic high school in Darjeeling, India. He traveled by bus for 12 hours to reach the boarding school. At school he was served bulgur and yellow porridge donated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Every once in a while Mother Teresa could be seen in her blue and white sari being driven around the school grounds in a jeep. One day she called Thapa over. She asked him his name, how he liked school and what he wanted to do in the future. He did not say he wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Instead he told her he wanted to work for the community, because that is where he came from. Decades later, sitting in one of five Bay Area Indian and Nepalese restaurants Thapa owns, he places his hand on his chest and says her kindness has stayed with him: “She’s in the heart.”


A small man who wears a sapphire ring on his left hand and a cat’s eye ring on his right – an astrologer told him they would bring success – Thapa may just be the future of Lions. When he moved to the U.S. in 2003 there was one Nepalese Lions Club in the U.S. Today there are seven in his district and more than 19 around the country including in New York, Connecticut, and Texas. Thapa was the first U.S. District Governor from the Nepalese diaspora and is currently a Specialty Club Coordinator. At a time when Lions membership in the U.S. is declining, incoming International President Dr. Jung-Yul Choi believes specialty clubs like the Nepalese clubs offer an opportunity for growth.

“We serve through diversity,” said Dr. Choi during a 2018 interview at Lions headquarters. He noted that many recent immigrants do not speak the language of their new country when they arrive, yet they need community more than ever. “So, have them form their own club and then let them speak their own language. So, we can give them chance to serve, join our Association,” he said.

The Nepalese Language School was created by Lions to help children learn about their culture and build confidence. Volunteer teacher Sabitri Joshi, right, helps Sofie Ghimire learn the Nepalese alphabet. Photo by Katya Cengel.

That is exactly what Thapa has done with the Nepalese diaspora. It is a natural fit. In Nepal former Prime Minister Matrika Prasad Koirala founded the first Lions club in 1971. Less than half a century later there are more than 800 Nepalese clubs. Thapa belonged to one of them, as did the man sitting beside him, Manil Shrestha. In Nepal, Shrestha was president of a club. His brother, father, and mother-in-law are all past presidents of Lions clubs in Nepal. Today Shrestha is a member of the first Nepalese specialty club Thapa founded in the U.S., Berkeley Annapurna, and a Zone Chair for District 4-C3.

“Our ancestors grew up giving back,” explains Shrestha, who is 46.

If you ask a Nepalese immigrant what their father, uncle, or other relative did, they will likely say that their relative built a road or a well or a school, says Shrewstha.

For Thapa it was a school. After completing university he returned to his village to teach in the primary school; he then started his own coed secondary school. Thapa made a point of encouraging families to send their daughters to his school, an uncommon occurrence at the time.

“I started to become more and more ambitious,” he says. “Not to make money, but to make an impact.”

Unfortunately the Nepalese civil war or Maoist insurgency interrupted his plans. The conflict lasted from 1996 to 2006 and left around 13,000 people dead and 200,000 displaced. Thapa remembers a time of torture, terror, and kidnapping. When he came to the U.S. in 2003 he had “two shirts, two pants and two children and one wife.” He had no idea what he would do the next morning. Yet within two years he had bought his first restaurant. The following year he founded the Berkeley Annapurna Lions Club, a specialty Nepalese club. Community service was “in the vein” and he saw Nepalese Lions clubs as a way for the Nepalese to assimilate.

“We should say ‘hello’ to our American friends; we should say ‘we are here’, we should say ‘we want to collaborate; we want to partner in the community where we are living now’,” says Thapa.

Volunteer teacher Sabitri Joshi teaches the younger students the Nepalese alphabet. Here she is working on pronunciation. Photo by Katya Cengel.

Having a specialty culture club is a way to do this. Although the Nepalese diaspora are familiar with Lions, language barriers, inferiority complexes and cultural shock mean it is difficult for them to join existing clubs in the U.S., says Thapa. In their own clubs they are given the opportunity to hold leadership roles through which they begin to interact with the greater Lions organization, thereby becoming more comfortable in their English language skills and in American culture. The confidence they gain means now instead of asking Thapa for a job in one of his restaurants they are working in banking, medicine and security.


“The horizon has opened,” he says.

Nirmal Phuyal’s story mirrors Thapa’s words. In Nepal, Phuyal worked in social development, but when he came to the U.S. in 2009 he did not consider joining Lions until a Nepalese neighbor recruited him for a Nepalese club.

Sunday classes are a family affair and children too young to read and write sometimes come to class, too. Photo by Katya Cengel.

As a Lion he was recognized for helping to coordinate a successful campaign, which “encouraged me to think more about Lions,” he says. Now the 47-year-old is a Zone Chair for District 4-C3 and has gone from working in a gas station to working as a paralegal. He is also president of a new Nepalese club, Lions Club of Berkeley Laligurans. The club organized a workshop on how to be an MC and is supporting the filming of a Nepalese documentary about child brides.

Further southeast in Mountain View on a Sunday this January, families fill a building. Children barely able to walk toddle to a front room, while their older siblings scramble to another room, notebooks, pens, and pencils in hand. Prashan Thapa sits at a table with other middle school aged children. The 10-year-old boy turns to the back of his notebook, where he has written the Nepali alphabet. Then he flips back to the front of his notebook, where he is trying to write his name in Nepali.

“I just need to find the last letter,” he says.

Down the hall in another room Sabitri Joshi stands in front of a class of younger children sounding out letters in the Nepali alphabet. Joshi’s eldest daughter, Shreeya, who is 8, is the reason Joshi is here teaching at the Nepali language school, which is held every other Sunday afternoon. At home, Joshi speaks Nepali, but when Shreeya started school the girl told her mother she didn’t need to learn Nepali because they didn’t use it at school. Joshi considered teaching other children in her garage so Shreeya would be amongst her peers. Then she heard about the Sunday school. In addition to the language, children also learn Nepalese dances and songs. Shreeya recently performed one of the Nepalese songs at her regular school, something she would never have done before, says her mother.

“Once we come here and start seeing so many other peers like her, I think they build their confidence and then they feel better about their Nepalese culture,” says Joshi.

The school is the vision of Narayan Khanal, Second Vice President of Sunnyvale Everest Lions Club. Khanal, who is 38, needed a place for the school. Hope Services, an organization that serves the developmentally disabled, agreed to let Lions use their building free of charge. That was how the Sunnyvale Everest Lions Club was founded in 2016.


“So it’s double benefit,” says Khanal. “We can bring these kids, they can learn Nepalese language, and at the same time we also help the community.”

This dual aspect is one of the reasons Thelma Batilo, District Governor of 4-C6, which includes Sunnyvale, is happy to have specialty clubs in her district. The Sunnyvale club has a clear mission, to have a place where they can teach their culture to the next generation, “so we want to encourage that and we also do community service.” Nearby, the Lions Club of Fremont Sagarmatha is using sports to both provide a service for the Nepalese community and to increase Lions membership. They started with a youth sports tournament in 2016. After partnering with the Bay Area Nepalese Community in Fremont in 2017 they decided to focus solely on soccer. Club President Raj Bhandari estimates that more than 300 people attended the two-day soccer tournament in 2018. Teams came from as far as Texas, but it was the Sunnyvale team that won the tournament. The captain of the winning team, Dharmendra Kc, is now soccer coordinator for the club. It was the soccer tournament that brought the 28 year-old to Lions.

“I’ve played in lots of places around the country, and this is the place to come,” Kc says of the tournament.

Instead of grass there is turf and there are always at least two referees for each game; factors that have attracted players who in turn bring their families and fans. The younger players bring their parents who are going to join or want to join Lions, club members theorize. The tournament also raises money for Lions projects in the U.S. and in Nepal through registration fees and a picnic.

Rajen Thapa, left, with then Lions District Governor of 4-C2 Les Mize help out after the 2017 fires in Santa Rosa, California. As a young boy in Nepal, Thapa dreamed of getting all Nepalese children an education. After moving to the U.S. he’s successfully started a Lions movement in the Nepalese community in California, where they’ve built schools to help children connect to their cultural roots. Photo by Katya Cengel.

But it isn’t soccer or language classes that the Nepalese diaspora have brought to Lions, it is a mindset, says Thapa. In the U.S. there is a tendency to think that you have to wait until retirement to contribute to society. For the Nepalese it is different, he says. They come to the U.S. They save their money. They spend time with their families. And then, while they are still in their 30s, they decide they want to give back and join Lions. There is less of a rigid separation between work, home, and service.

For Thapa, work and Lions are literally in the same place. Many of the local Nepalese clubs hold their meetings at one of his restaurants.

In Mountain View, meetings are held at the same time and in the same building as language lessons. Also happening then is a gathering of elders. While the young learn the Nepalese culture the old learn how to live in California, talking about the difficulty of obtaining a driver’s license when the written test is not offered in Nepali. The group has a name and a logo, an image of people sitting under a tree. The illustration is reminiscent of the scene where Thapa’s story of service began: sitting under a banyan tree in Nepal, telling stories to children.