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Pennies for Peace is a program of the 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Central Asia Institute (CAI). CAI was co-founded by Greg Mortenson in 1996 and the organization empowers communities of Central Asia through literacy and education, especially for girls, promotes peace through education, and conveys the importance of these activities globally.

The Pennies for Peace service-learning program began at Westside Elementary School in River Falls, WI in 1994, when students, through their own initiative, raised 62,340 pennies to help Greg Mortenson build a school in Korphe, Pakistan. Greg came to Westside at the invitation of his mother, Jerene Mortenson, who was the principal at Westside. The story of the first Pennies for Peace campaign is recounted in the Three Cups of Tea as follows (used with permission):

Jerene Mortenson had been anxiously following her son’s odyssey from her new home in River Falls, Wisconsin. After finishing her Ph.D., she had been hired as principal of the Westside Elementary School. Jerene convinced her son to visit, and to give a slide show and speech to 600 students in her school. “I’d been having a really hard time explaining to adults why I wanted to help students in Pakistan,” Mortenson says. “But the kids got it right away. When they saw the pictures, they couldn’t believe that there was a place where children sat outside in cold weather and tried to hold classes without teachers. They decided to do something about it.”

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A month after returning to Berkeley, Mortenson got a letter from his mother. She explained that her students had spontaneously launched a “Pennies for Pakistan” drive. Filling two forty-gallon trash cans, they collected 62,345 pennies. When he deposited the check his mother sent along for $623.45 Mortenson felt like his luck was finally changing. “Children had taken the first step toward building the school,” Mortenson says. “And they did it with something that is basically worthless in our society – pennies. But overseas, pennies can move mountains.”

Since those early days Pennies for Peace has grown into a program that encompass thousands of participants around the world.

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The Pennies for Peace program is designed to help students broaden their cultural horizons and learn about their capacities as philanthropists. It educates students about the world beyond their experience and shows them that they can make a positive impact on a global scale, one penny at a time. Students learn the rewards of sharing and working together to bring hope and education opportunities to the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While a penny is virtually worthless, in impoverished countries a penny buys a pencil and opens the door to literacy.