Pennies for Peace
By Eva Melusine Thieme
Local school children become philanthropists, one penny at a time
My 12-year-old son is convinced that one person cannot possibly make a difference in the world.
Anybody, child or adult, who thinks along those lines, should learn about Greg Mortenson. His bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea, is a gripping tale of how a failed mountain climbing mission led him to dedicate his life to building schools in the poorest regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, powered solely by a promise he had made and his desire to fulfill it. Best of all, he has found a way to show our children that they too can make a difference, one penny at a time.
Pennies for Peace, a philanthropic program tens of thousands of American school children participate in every year, grew from Mortenson’s early efforts to raise money. The idea is that everyone can participate, since everyone can spare a penny, and that just one penny can buy a pencil for a child in Central Asia, creating a path to literacy and empowerment to counteract the despair and violence in that region.
My son’s school, Overland Trail Middle School in Overland Park, participated in Pennies for Peace this year and collected 95,527 pennies in six weeks. The best part about collecting pennies was how visibly the pile grew. Three big water cooler bottles were used as collection jars, and soon became so heavy that lifting them was impossible.
At Notre Dame de Sion School in Kansas City, a teacher initiated Pennies for Peace when she saw that many children were already reading Three Cups of Tea. Their goal was to raise $600 to fund a teacher for one year, but instead they collected $1,000. “We loved being able to span all grade levels from 3-year-olds to eighth grade,” says Catherine Butel, Notre Dame principal. “It gave us a chance to connect to another school community.”
Pennies for Peace was entirely the students’ initiative at Shawnee Mission East High School. Sophomore Annie Sgroi was inspired by a recent local appearance of Greg Mortenson, whom she calls “a shy and normal guy who really cares about those kids.” She enlisted the help of a few classmates to put collection jars in every English teacher’s classroom and hand out tea bags stapled to cards describing the program. Between this year and last, Sgroi and her friends contributed $1,500 to Pennies for Peace.
Even my son had to concede that all these local efforts added up to real money. But Pennies for Peace is much more than just a fundraiser. “Most fundraisers at our school are not completely selfless,” says Bill Brooks, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Santa Fe Trail Junior High School in Olathe. But Pennies for Peace was. His students, many of whom have little opportunity to view themselves as rich or privileged, loved helping those far less fortunate. “The kids’ faces beamed when they could drop even a couple of cents into the jar,” he says. In just four months, they had raised $3,113.
Bethany Taylor, a teacher at Overland Park’s Harmony Elementary School, whose second-graders decided to help after reading Three Cups of Tea in class, sums up: “It has opened their hearts to another part of the world. It is not just a place to them. There are little kids there. Pennies for Peace is global enrichment.”
For more information, please visit www.PenniesForPeace.org.
Eva Melusine Thieme lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children.