PEPPERELL — At the prompting of teacher Mr. McSheehy, the fifth grade at Varnum Brook Elementary School is running a fund-raising drive called Pennies for Peace.
Pennies for Peace (www.penniesforpeace.org) is a “service learning program of Central Asia Institute (CAI), a nonprofit that provides community-based education, especially for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Pakistan and Afghanistan are thousands of miles away from Pepperell and their educational system is at the opposite end of the spectrum from North Middlesex Regional School District and other schools worldwide. They don’t have much money; not just in the current economic times but all the time. Not all the children go to school, partly due to the fact that there are not many schools, partly because they are busy herding animals or live too far away. And, if you are a girl, it is even more unlikely that you would go to school. In fact, only two out of 10 girls even go to elementary school.
K-2, the second highest mountain in the world, is in Pakistan. For a man named Greg Mortenson, K-2 was to be one of his life’s achievements.
Mortenson traveled to Pakistan to climb K-2 but did not make it to the top, after becoming lost and injured. Nearby villagers, who had very little money or food, took him in and nursed him back to health. The time Mortenson spent with them changed the course of his life, and theirs, forever.
While in the village, he saw children running in the streets and countryside because they had no schools or teachers. While recovering from his injury in the village, Mortenson vowed to come back and build a school for the village.
Although the realization of the school was difficult, Mortenson did indeed make good on his promise. Three years later, with the help of money donated by a citizen and children in the USA, and with the help of Pakistani villagers, he was able to construct a five-room school. Some of the children walk three hours each way to attend the school.
Today, he has built over 64 schools in the mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson has built these schools one penny at a time.
The first penny drive generated $623 and the largest single donation came from elementary-school-age children. And so was born Pennies for Peace.
“The premise behind Pennies for Peace is that we can make a difference for these children, one penny at a time,” McSheehy said. “It is an opportunity for VBES children to help other children.” The fifth-grade students are the leaders at VBES.
This responsibility is proudly upheld by the fifth-grade classes. For many, the penny drive is their first exposure to philanthropy.
“They are learning the value of a penny,” McSheehy said. “A penny can purchase a pencil; $20, or 2000 pennies, can purchase supplies for a year for one student. $600 will pay the salary for one teacher for a year. And $50,000, will build a school and equipment for that school for five years.”
More than a fund-raiser, the project has also been a geography lesson, allowing teachers to show students where Pakistan and Afghanistan are on the map. It has also been a public speaking lesson, as the fifth-grade students present the program to other classes at VBES.
And it has been a math lesson, as they figure out how many pennies are in a pound, or how many pennies are in a gallon. The math continues with a graph showing how much the students have donated each week.
The Penny Drive at VBES will continue through Nov. 20. At that time, the collected pennies will be brought to a local bank to be counted, then the final count will be announced.
Varnum Brook Elementary School students are helping their peers although they have never met them. Perhaps they never will. But it could be that their participation in this simple fund-raiser will change their lives forever, as it will definitely change the lives of the villagers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So far, over 16 million pennies have been raised in over 700 schools.
“The schools that have been built thus far have educated over 25,000 students, including 12,000 girls,” McSheehy said.
To find out more about the program and Greg Mortenson’s journey, visit www.penniesforpeace.org or pick up the New York Times’ best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea.”
For those who do not have students at Varnum Brook Elementary School but would like to participate in the pennies for peace drive, pennies can be left at the school’s main office, attention Mr. McSheehy.