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Students Build Schools for Kids in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Service-learning program "Pennies for Peace" builds schools and promotes tolerance

By Cindy Long

Pennies Make Real Change

A third-grader at Ignacio Elementary in Ignacio, Colorado, was a bit of a bully, who sometimes pushed the other kids around. Then he took part in a “Pennies for Peace” project to raise money for school children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and realized it feels a lot better to help people than to hurt them.

“I tingle inside when I help others,” the young boy said. “It’s like electricity.”

Jill Ostergaard is the guidance counselor at Ignacio Elementary who coordinates the school’s Pennies for Peace program. “It’s not the act of kindness that prompts a child to change,” she says. “It’s the feeling that accompanies that act, and this program gives all of our students a chance to ‘tingle inside.’”

Helping children change is the purpose of Pennies for Peace, a service-learning program founded by humanitarian Greg Mortenson, author of the bestseller Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time, and executive director of the Central Asia Institute.

The story of Pennies for Peace begins in 1993, after Mortenson’s failed attempt to summit K2, the world’s second highest peak. After losing the trail on the treacherous passage down, he stumbled—hungry, exhausted, and near death—into a Muslim village tucked into a high valley of the Himalayas.

While he recovered, he saw the village’s children gather each day on a windswept field where they scratched out letters and numbers with sticks in the dirt. One girl told him that she liked her lessons, but that it was very cold and she wanted a warm place to learn.


Greg Mortenson is particularly interested in educating girls in this volatile region -- educated girls are more likely to grow up to have healthy, educated families who are less likely to be recruited by extremist groups.

"She didn’t even have a word for school—she asked me if I could find them a warm house where they could have their lessons,” he said. “Her sincerity moved me, and in a rash moment, I promised that one day I would return to build her village a school. Little did I know, that promise would change my life forever.”

When he got back to the States, he sent out hundreds of fundraising letters, getting $100 from Tom Brokaw, a fellow University of South Dakota alum, in return. He sold his Buick, and all his books. Still, he was far short of the amount needed to travel back to Pakistan to build a school.

Finally, Mortenson visited Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wisconsin, where his mother was principal. After hearing about the village in Pakistan, a fourth-grader named Jeffrey brought in his piggy bank, heavy with pennies. The other students pitched in, and six weeks later Mortenson had collected 62,340 pennies from the students.

The Power of a Penny

A penny is practically worthless in the United States, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will buy a child a pencil. A pencil can open the door to literacy, which Mortenson has learned is the most important way to bring peace, especially in a region where extremist groups such as the Taliban recruit the uneducated poor.

Last year American children raised more than $900,000 —all in pennies—but Mortenson says the mission of Pennies for Peace is not to raise funds, but to raise awareness about the world and other cultures.

The curriculum, developed with assistance from The NEA Foundation, is tied to national social studies, literacy, and mathematics standards, but the real lessons come when American students recognize themselves in the Afghani and Pakistani children, when they realize that they can profoundly change these children’s lives, and that it feels pretty good when they do.


A "shape poem" written by one of Sloan's
second graders.

Megan Sloan teaches second grade at Cathcart Elmen-tary School in Snohomish, Washington, where her students have read Three Cups of Tea: Young Reader’s Edition, as well as Listen to the Wind, a picture book based on Mortenson’s story.

“When I told my kids about the project, they instantly began bringing in change,” Sloan says. “They wanted to help. They wanted to find out more about these kids, and their hearts widened right before my eyes.”

The impact the project made on her students was palpable, but Sloan said it was also easily woven into her classroom learning goals. Students wrote about the program during Sloan’s writing workshops, pulling out paper, crayons, journals, and markers to produce stories and poems about the region, and about giving. They wanted to find out more about Pakistan and Afghanistan, and could point to them on a map and a globe (more than some Americans can claim). The students were fascinated by the villages the children lived in, and could talk about their culture without judgment or fear.

“I know my students will never forget this project,” Sloan says. “They helped build a school for kids who otherwise would not have one, putting books into the hands of kids who would otherwise never have the opportunity to read. This will live with them always.”

Click here for the Pennies for Peace online toolkit.



Pennies for Peace Curriculum

Pennies for Peace Curriculum
With a grant from the NEA Foundation, Pennies for Peace has developed a curriculum for educators.


  • Pennies for Peace Toolkit
  • anc_dyn_linksNEA Today Interviews Greg Mortenson

Published in:

Published In


  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2009
  • anc_dyn_linksAugust | September 2009
  • anc_dyn_linksMay 2009
  • anc_dyn_linksMarch | April 2009
  • anc_dyn_linksJanuary | February 2009


Greg Mortenson - Pennies for Peace

Greg Mortenson - Pennies for Peace
A video profiling Greg Mortenson, winner of an NEA Human and Civil Rights Award.