Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Small Change, Big Change

Back in 1994, when Greg Mortenson of the Central Asia Institute wanted to build his first school in remote Pakistan, he had trouble bringing adult supporters on board. Kids? No problem.

Mortenson's mom, Jerene, invited him to give a slide show and speech to 600 students at Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wisc., where she was principal. "When they saw the pictures," Mortenson wrote in his bestseller Three Cups of Tea, "they couldn't believe that there was a place where children sat outside in cold weather and tried to hold classes without teachers."

A month later, his mom sent him a check for $623.45--from the Westside kids, as a first step toward building the school in Pakistan. Her students had spontaneously launched a "Pennies for Pakistan" drive, filling two 40-gallon trashcans. "They [contributed] something that is basically worthless in our society--pennies," wrote Mortenson. "But overseas, pennies can move mountains."

Since those early days, the penny drive--now called Pennnies for Peace--has grown to include thousands of schools worldwide. Only pennies are collected so that everyone can contribute, regardless of income. Students in the developed world learn they can be philanthropists, have a positive impact on a global scale, even fight terrorism. "Teaching girls to read and write reduces the ignorance and poverty that fuel religious extremism," Mortenson wrote in a November '09 Parade magazine essay, "and lays a groundwork for prosperity and peace."

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