When an injured American mountaineer, being nursed back to health by villagers in Pakistan’s northern frontier providence, saw 84 children attending a chilly open air school and using sticks on the ground as pencils, he promised to build them a school. Fourteen years later, his 64 schools and 25,000 well-educated children have become a potential antidote to the Taliban’s influence in that region.
Is this a movie? Not yet. It’s the life of Greg Mortenson, executive director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and co-author of the memoir, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace ... One School At A Time, a New York Times bestseller in each of the 55 weeks since its release. And through ‘Pennies for Peace,’ a CAI initiative, pint-sized activists in America have nurtured literacy in schools where electricity was non-existent.
"The Pennies for Peace (www.penniesforpeace.org) intention is two-fold. First, it’s an opportunity to study the cultures of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Second, we want students to understand their own capacity as philanthropists, no matter how young. But really what is most important is to broaden students’ horizons," says Christiane Leitinger, director of Pennies for Peace. A curriculum and teachers’ resources make the program simple to implement.
"We focus on pennies as in our culture it’s often considered worthless. However in Pakistan and Afghanistan a penny can buy a pencil, start an education and transform a life," Leitinger says. "Twenty dollars is one student’s school supplies for one year, $600 pays one teacher’s annual salary, $5,000 supports an existing school for one year." The villagers share half the associated costs in cash, kind or labor.
Several local schools have risen to the Pennies for Peace challenge. In February, Aqsa School and Universal School, both Islamic full-time schools in Bridgeview, co-hosted an event where 1,600 middle school and high school students gathered to hear Mortenson speak. Students from Saint Ignatius, Oswego High School, Young Women’s School, Glenbrook High School, Queen of Peace, Islamic Foundation School and Aux Middle School attended.
Prior to the event, Aqsa School raised $3,000 in a week from its 300 students, while Universal School raised $8,000 from its 600 students in about three weeks.
"I was inspired by the way (Mortenson) made a promise and kept it," says Jenna Baker, 11, a sixth-grader at Aqsa School. "He showed us that one man could make a difference. It’s very hard to find people like him."
Faris Aqrabawi, 11, a sixth-grader at Universal School, says his $20 contribution towards Pennies for Peace, "made me feel like I was part of the project that Greg was doing."
At the same time, Plainfield residents were reading Three Cups of Tea as part of the "Reading Across Plainfield" initiative. "As I read Three Cups of Tea, I shared stories with my 11-year-old boys, Ryan and Josh, who were moved by Greg’s work and that sparked their own desire to help," says dad Matt Wilburn.
The twins put together a Power Point proposal to have the school hold a Pennies for Peace fundraiser, met with the principal and faculty at Heritage Grove Middle School, and, in a role reversal, gave the adults goals and deadlines. Within three weeks, the school collected $1,000 in pennies and propelled the program into all 30 schools in Plainfield School District 202.
"When kids asked us why we should we give money to people who are just going to bomb us, we explained that it’s only ignorance that allows people to be led to believe that terrorism is the answer, or lets them believe that America wants to harm them. Education will make them understand things differently," says Josh. "Those children are the future."
The Averroes Academy Parent Teacher Committee read the book in November 2007, as part of its Book Club Read, and teachers Nida Tabba and Sumaiya Shamsuddin put Pennies for Peace into action at the school. First-grader Sawleh Waraich, 6, dipped into his savings account when their first-grade class lost its penny jar for two days. Obaid Ansari, 9, and his sister Lena, 7, each gave $50 from their piggy banks. "Even the bank teller asked them to give less, only because those pennies were so heavy. Each box worth $25 in pennies weighed 16 pounds or so. They could barely carry it," says mom Faizah Syed.
Such enthusiasm thrills Mortenson. "When the Taliban was in power, only 800,000 kids were in school. Today more than five million children go to school, and 1.8 million are girls. That’s where we should be putting our money," Mortenson says.
Today, some of these girls who began life writing with sticks in the ground are setting out to study law and midwifery.
"There are many stereotypes and misperceptions about Islam and the good people of Pakistan and Afghanistan," says Mortenson. "They aspire to the same values, goals and hopes as Americans, and it’s important that their voice be heard if we are to ever live in a world of peace."
Naazish YarKhan teaches creative writing workshops for children. Her students’s writing can be read at www.writersstudiokids.blogspot.com. She has written for more than 30 publications, and her commentaries have aired on NPR and Chicago Public Radio.