Greg Mortenson was about an hour late getting to Boise High School on Friday but that just gave teachers and students from Highlands and Roosevelt Elementary schools in Boise time to lug numerous plastic containers filled with pennies into the Boise High office.
Mortenson is the author of New York Times Bestseller, “Three Cups of Tea,” which tells of his transformation from mountaineer to school builder. He was in town to speak at the Epilepsy Foundation gala Friday night.
His sister died in her early 20s from a severe epileptic seizure, so it is a cause dear to his heart. But he spent the afternoon at Boise High with a younger set of local philanthropists.
All have been raising money for months, through penny drives and muffin sales, for the Central Asia Institute, a group Mortenson founded.
His “Pennies for Peace” program gives young people the chance to help build schools, particularly for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Taliban leaders, suspicious of women’s ability to spread ideas to their children and the community as a whole, do not want women educated, Mortenson said.
“Holy cow,” Samantha Edwards, a Boise High sophomore and self-described “bookworm” said after Mortenson’s talk. “Girls are getting such unfair treatment.”
Since 1994, the “Pennies” project has collected 8 million pennies. And it will get quite a few more from local pockets.
Carol Dixon volunteers at Highlands Elementary helping organize service learning projects. She said the students have been meeting with refugee students, some from Pakistan and Afghanistan, at Lowell Elementary, hosting meals and craft projects. Dixon will have the task of taking the coins they’ve collected to the bank to be counted.
Students from Roosevelt handed Mortenson a check for nearly $350 – including the last penny someone found on the Boise High steps.
Nikki Muggli, a Roosevelt second-grader, said she opened her piggy bank and donated the $5.45 inside.
When asked why the “Pennies” project inspired her, she explained that charitable giving is nothing new. “I saved $20 to give for Hurricane Katrina,” she said.
Mortenson’s organization has built 64 schools, but his beginnings were modest. After meeting village children in 1993 who were so desperate to learn they were writing with sticks in the mud, he returned to the U.S. and sent 500 letters asking celebrities for money to build a school.
The only response he got was from newsman Tom Brokaw, who sent him $100. Mortenson raised the $12,000 by speaking at schools and collecting coins from students.
He reminded the crowd that a penny might not buy much in the U.S., but it will buy a pencil, maybe even a notebook in Afghanistan.
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