School-building organization gets help from Summit County community |

School-building organization gets help from Summit County community

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Summit County CO Colorado
Greg Mortenson sits with students in a Pakistani school built by the Central Asia Institute. In his 13th year, Mortenson has now built 58 schools.

Greg Mortenson stayed in Pakistan in the days and weeks following the 9/11 attacks. The board of directors from his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), asked him to come home. The State Department wanted him to evacuate. But after a call to his wife, Mortenson continued his work in the Muslim country. He had schools to build.

“A poor widow named Hawa brought me four eggs to give to the widows in New York,” Mortenson said. “People sought me out, they apologized even though they had nothing to do with the attacks.”

Eventually, Mortenson did go back to his home in Bozeman, Mont. On Halloween day, he sat in his basement office and opened the stacks of letters that had built up while he was away. There was hate mail. There were death threats.

Around the same time, Mortenson’s 5-year-old daughter picked up the phone and heard a voice on the other end say, “I’m going to kill your daddy because he’s helping Muslim children.”

The ill will from what Mortenson calls “my fellow Americans” only supported the precept Mortenson had been holding on to as he built schools for children in Pakistan: Ignorance breeds hatred.

“To overcome ignorance you have to have education,” he said. “It’s really sad sometimes.”

For the past 13 years, Mortenson has been propagating education, especially for girls, by building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a region of the world many find synonymous with terrorism and religious extremism. But for him, educating females promotes hope, which is more important than fighting terrorism.

“If you fight terrorism you’re living in fear ” it’s fear based,” Mortenson said. “But if you’re promoting peace, it’s hope-based. And in the War on Terror, we can build walls around America, but we should break down those walls and build bridges of peace.”

Mortenson is doing his part ” and the part of the thousands of people who have backed his cause ” by continuing to build schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. At this point, he has built 58 schools (in conjunction with CAI) with 24,000 total students “14,000 of whom are girls .

Why the focus on female education? Mortenson illustrates his women-centric view with an African proverb: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate the community.”

Mortenson explained that boys often leave the village and don’t come back, but girls become mothers and instill the value of education in the community.

In fact, it’s often the women who can change the course of their sons’ lives.

Mortenson said that in Islam, when a young man goes on jihad “which can mean anything from a spiritual quest, going to university or joining the Taliban ” the boy must get permission and blessings from his mother. If he doesn’t, he is shamed and disgraced.

According to Mortenson, “If a mother is educated, she is much less likely to condone her son going to violence, terrorism or committing suicide.”

Along with promoting peace, Mortenson said several global studies have shown that infant mortality is reduced, population explosion is averted, and health and basic quality of life are improved when girls receive just a fifth-grade education.

With his easy encyclopedic knowledge, Mortenson can rattle off how much money it would take to give children an education worldwide. Currently, 145 million children ages 5 to 14 don’t have access to an education. The cost to eliminate this statistic is about $1 per month, per child. That adds up to somewhere between $6 and $8 billion for one year, which Mortenson admits is a lot of money. But in contrast to the $94.2 billion allotted for the United States military budget in Iraq last year, Mortenson said coming up with that amount is possible.

Mortenson’s still-unfolding story is distinctly American, and even more than that, defined by a Western spirit. Thirteen years ago, Mortenson said he “was just a dirtbag climber that wanted to build a school.” (Mortenson’s initial thoughts on school-building in Pakistan came after a failed attempt to summit K2 and a subsequent meeting with the residents of a remote, impoverished village near the mountain’s base.) Since then, the operation has become more defined as it has grown. Now, Mortenson’s operations come under CAI (which he helped to form), and the focus has been whittled down to specifically focus on education for girls.

Summit County steps up

Mortenson’s mission is contagious, and even more so after the publication of the book about his work, “Three Cups of Tea.” A review of the book is on Page A6.

Shannon Galpin was one of multitudes who have fallen under Mortenson’s philanthropic spell. A four-year Breckenridge resident and an avid runner, she saw an opportunity to raise money with a charity race. But the idea quickly grew into something greater.

“I decided, you know what, this is bigger than a charity race,” Galpin said. “That wouldn’t raise enough money on its own.”

And so Mountain to Mountain began, with a belief that “our mountain community can play a unique and active role in promoting education in the mountain villages of central Asia,” according to Galpin.

Now, Mountain to Mountain provides a locally based umbrella for all types of fundraising for the Central Asia Institute, including the original charity race, scheduled for June 24 in Breckenridge, a speaking event with Mortenson in June and Pennies for Peace, a fundraising program started in River Falls, Wis. An elementary school there gave Mortenson his first donation to build his initial school by collecting pennies, and Pennies for Peace has since spread to schools across the country.

The challenge grant

Summit County has a $15,000 challenge grant to go along with the Mountain to Mountain organization. Established by four local families, every dollar raised for CAI in Summit County will be matched by the grant, up to $15,000. In the end, the grant initiators hope $30,000 will be put in the coffers toward Mountain to Mountain’s final goal of a $50,000 donation to CAI ” the amount required to finance a school in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

In line with Mortenson’s style, the grant started with inspired individuals. After Breckenridge resident Tim Casey read “Three Cups of Tea,” he immediately bought 10 more copies and handed them out to friends and family. From there, Casey came together with three other local families who were interested in contributing to the challenge grant.

“We said, let’s make this a community event,” Casey remembered. “Let’s challenge the community to do something as individuals, something more than our government is doing.”

Casey said he liked Greg’s model for change, which he described as “very hands-on and involved with the communities (in Pakistan and Afghanistan). He works with local leaders.”

That approach is echoed in the message Casey hopes Summit County will send with its contributions.

“This is one small way to say there are people in the U.S. in a mountain community that care about other mountain communities,” Casey said. “People in the U.S. would be perceived as good citizens of the world if we do more of this kind of stuff.”

For Larry Crispell, another contributor to the challenge grant, having a daughter brought Mortenson’s message very close to home.

“I intuitively understand the importance of Mortenson’s message,” Crispell said. “If you can educate a young woman, then what you’ve done is … given her the chance to know the value of an education. She will then value education for her family.”

Crispell said it all starts with just one person ” one person like Greg Mortenson.

“Greg’s example has shown us that one person can make a difference,” Crispell said. “Just one person at a time, and if everyone steps up, we’re going to help him multiply this effect.”

Crispell’s son is enrolled at Breckenridge Elementary, a place Crispell describes as “an experience that’s really special. I want somebody else to have that experience that we take for granted.”

Pennies for Peace

Local kids want their international peers to have an education too. Breckenridge’s Little Red Schoolhouse is currently participating in the Pennies for Peace program.

The preschool’s director, Jill Malay, said Little Red taught its students about the educational problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan on 3- and 4-year-olds’ terms, explaining there are kids from a whole different part of the world that don’t have the chance to learn all sorts of things because they can’t go to school.

From there, Little Red began donating its proceeds from the “Little Red Cafe,” a bake sale and coffee time for parents and kids on Friday mornings, to CAI. Even this money will go toward matching the challenge grant.

Pennies for Peace will also be presented to Breckenridge Elementary students and IB students at both Summit Middle School and Summit High School.

Breckenridge Elementary principal Hollyanna Bates first heard about Mortenson’s work from Patrick Fagan ” a community member unconnected to her school ” who “spent $30 of his money for this book. He brought it in just to me because he thought I might be interested because it’s about schools.”

Bates said her student council will have the opportunity to decide if they want Pennies for Peace at Breck Elementary. Galpin will present the program, and the student council will decide whether or not to participate as a part of its Primary Years Program, which challenges students to act on positive attitudes and take responsibility among other things.

And hopefully, Summit County kids will respond to the needs of their global demographic.

“The kids are open to listening,” said Christiane Leitinger, director of the Pennies for Peace program. “It can be more difficult for adults … this is giving the community an opportunity to learn.”

Lindsey Krusen can be reached

at, or

at (970) 668-4620.

Get involved

How to help

Mountain to Mountain, Summit County’s local organization benefitting the Central Asia Institute, is holding a volunteer meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21 at Oasis 9600 on Airport Road in Breck. For more information on the meeting or how to help,

contact Mountain to Mountain director Shannon Galpin at Mountain to Mountain’s website at

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