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Kids' lesson: Change world a penny at a time

Two dozen Moorhead fifth-graders kicked off their shoes in solidarity with Greg Mortenson, best-selling author and fellow do-gooder. A barefoot Mortenson walked into the Ellen Hopkins Elementary library Thursday to meet for the first time his loc...

Greg Mortenson

Two dozen Moorhead fifth-graders kicked off their shoes in solidarity with Greg Mortenson, best-selling author and fellow do-gooder.

A barefoot Mortenson walked into the Ellen Hopkins Elementary library Thursday to meet for the first time his local team of fundraisers. For several weeks now, the children have hoarded pennies for school supplies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There, Mortenson explained, people take off their shoes at schools out of reverence for learning. There, the students had recently learned, a penny buys a pencil, and a dollar covers a teacher's daily salary. Those are the kinds of global epiphanies Mortenson hopes to spur with his Pennies for Peace project, which has school kids across the country springing for their peers in south Asia.

"This is about teaching children about cross-cultural awareness and that anybody can make a difference," says Mortenson, one-time Concordia College student and guest speaker at the university's Nobel Peace Prize Forum.

Last Christmas break, Hopkins art teacher Jen Nelson read the bestseller Mortenson co-wrote, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time." She was inspired: "That whole idea that one person can change the world - he's a perfect example of it."

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Some 15 years ago, Mortenson staggered into the impoverished Pakistani village of Korphe after a botched attempt to climb the K2 summit. He was touched by the villagers' kindness - and the sight of their children scratching multiplication tables in the dirt outside. He promised he'd build them a school.

Back in California, he sold all his possessions, lived in his Buick and mailed celebrities pleas for donations. But the first major boost to his bid was $623 in pennies raised by schoolchildren in Wisconsin, where his mom worked as a principal. Since, he's helped build more than 60 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan - the best counterterrorism strategy he can think of.

Nelson recruited the members of her school's K-Kids, a service-learning club. They supplied each of the school's 30-plus classes with a two-liter bottle to stuff with pennies. They created a PowerPoint presentation to get their fellow students on board. Thus, they joined more than a 1,000 schools nationwide that have raised 18 million pennies for the project.

Like most of her classmates, Tracy Athmann, a fifth-grader and the K-Kids president, thought of Pakistan as a mysterious land she would have trouble finding on a map: "We didn't know what it looked like there or what they go through every day."

Among the facts she's learned and shared: K2 is the second-tallest mountain in the world. Children in those remote regions have never owned a book. The schools Mortenson builds are made "not of cement but of rocks!"

Athmann, the K-Kids president, showed off the hefty $49.63 in pennies her class alone raised. She had put in about $4, scavenged from her home's junk drawer, coat pockets and her piggy bank, where she puts coins "for a rainy day."

"With all of these pennies, you can buy lots of stuff in Pakistan," observed fellow fifth-grader Todd Larry.

Penny drive organizers will add to the total raised today, when they wrap up their effort. But the exact sum

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doesn't matter, says Nelson. "To see them so self-confident, so organized, so self-motivated - it's really inspiring," she said. "That's why I became a teacher."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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