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Continuing an effort initiated by an elementary school principal in Wisconsin in 1994, students from King Lab Magnet School and Evanston Township High School have partnered to participate in Pennies for Peace, a program encouraging American children to bring hope and education to other children through building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On Feb. 25, Gwen Blossom’s fourth-grade class arrived at ETHS with handmade posters, labeled coin canisters and well-rehearsed presentations. They came ready to meet 15 high-school student guides from the Service Club, who led them to classrooms and offices, where they made a pitch for spare change. After their brief presentations, the King Lab students asked their audiences for pennies to support the work of Greg Mortenson, nurse-mountaineer turned school builder, who started Pennies for Peace in 1994 and has been building schools ever since as a strategy for global peace.
As an introduction to the Pennies for Peace project, Ms. Blossom introduced her fourth-graders to the book and video, “Three Cups of Tea,” co-authored by Greg Mortenson. That book and a subsequent one he wrote for young people, “Listen to the Wind,” tell the story of Mr. Mortenson’s unusual journey to launching a remarkable humanitarian campaign and dedicating his life to promoting education for children, especially girls, in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The students learned that in 1993, to honor his recently deceased sister’s memory, Greg Mortenson climbed Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, in the Karakoram Range. Quite weakened and ill from the climb, he recovered in a small village called Korphe, tucked away in the Hindu Kush mountains. During his recuperation, he happened upon a group of children sitting in the dirt, using sticks to write in the sand. The children were without a teacher but were sitting outside in the cold weather — trying to have a school by themselves.
The experience was a turning point for Mr. Mortenson. He made a commitment to return and build a school for the children of Korphe — and one that girls could attend. Despite his typewritten appeals to more than 500 high-profile people he hoped would donate funds for the project, the first donation of $624 came as a result of his mother’s initiating a penny campaign at the school where she was employed as principal. Now, 16 years later the Central Asia Institute, the non-profit organization Mr. Mortenson founded, has supported the building and operation of 131 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Since the opening of the five-classroom school in Korphe, more than 58,000 children in the two countries have received education. Most impressive is that 44,000 of them have been girls — and in parts of the world where traditionally girls have not been allowed schooling. “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual,” Mr. Mortenson said in a MSNBC broadcast in December 2009, “but if you educate a girl, you educate a whole community.”
Mary Collins, community service coordinator at ETHS and facilitator for many successful high school service projects, welcomed the King Lab students and introduced them to ETHS students from the Service Club. “I’m proud of your efforts to collect pennies for such a good cause,” she said. “Did you learn a lot from ‘Three Cups of Tea’?“
“Well, when our teacher read from that book, I couldn’t believe it,” said fourth-grader Davis Patterson. “Here we take school for granted. We don’t even want to go to school sometimes, but the kids in Afghanistan and Pakistan want it more then anything.”
Classmate Lara Kosar added, “I think Pennies for Peace is a good idea. Kids with an education will know better than to do violence and want war.” Mr. Mortenson’s thesis that community-building and developing schools is a potent strategy for defeating ignorance, hatred and war has been heard and heeded by Admiral Mike Mullen, President Obama’s handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by General David Petraeus. The book “Three Cups of Tea” is now required reading for U.S. officers in the regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The King Lab students took their Greg Mortenson show-and-tell into 26 classrooms and faculty offices, in small groups led by their savvy ETHS student guides. In both classrooms and offices, the King Lab students displayed their posters and told their audiences the inspiring chronicle of Mr. Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute bringing schools to remote villages where few students had access to education. In their posters and presentations the students explained that a single penny could buy a pencil in Pakistan or Afghanistan, that two cents could buy an eraser and that two to three dollars would pay for a teacher’s salary for a day.
“To us a penny is nothing,” said 9-year-old Wynne Collins, “but you could actually get something there for a penny.”
To date, in addition to the schools themselves, CAI funds also have supported teachers’ salaries, school library projects, teacher training, potable water projects and scholarships for women’s vocational training. The construction of a single school building in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and support for that school for five years, costs $50,000 – or five million pennies collected by students like those in Evanston.
People who wish to drop their spare change into a Pennies for Peace canister have lots of options in town. Marian Kurz and Lois Rowade, two Evanston women who became activists after reading “Three Cups of Tea” last summer, ordered a hefty supply of coin canisters and have left them at willing businesses around town.
To date they have collected $1,900 for the Central Asia Institute’s school building initiatives from coin canisters left at local stores: Ten Thousand Villages, Planet Hair, Brothers K, Bennison’s Bakery, Linz and Vail (Central St.), Mike’s Shoe Repair, Orchard Cleaners, D&D Foods, Levy Center, and Rollin’ in Dough. People interested in more information about Pennies for Peace or the Central Asia Institute can go to www.ikat.org.