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March 11, 2009 > Making a Difference - One School at a Time

Making a Difference - One School at a Time

Greg Mortenson Visits the Tri-City Area

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

Something extraordinary happened in the Tri-Cities on Tuesday, March 3rd, when Greg Mortenson appeared in three sold-out events organized by the Fremont Branch of the American Association of University Women. Men, women, and children of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds braved heavy rains and gathered to hear Mortenson's message of hope, perseverance, and making a difference.

Greg Mortenson has made it his life mission to promote peace through education - by building schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. To date, he has built 78 schools in Central Asia. His schools bring the promise of education to over 28,000 students living in inaccessible areas, many of whom are girls.

Mortenson's quest to build schools began after a failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Disoriented from the high altitude and extreme fatigue, he took a wrong turn while descending the mountain and stepped foot in a remote Pakistani village. The village chief warmly offered hospitality, refreshments, and a safe place to sleep while he recuperated. During his stay, he was moved by the sight of the village children patiently learning multiplication using sticks in the dirt - without teachers or a school building. The children's fierce desire to learn moved him to make a vow that he would build them a school. He kept his promise in 1993 and has continued building schools in Central Asia since.

Mortenson spoke about global illiteracy, education of girls, and the critical need for schools during his appearances at James Logan High in Union City and the Diamond Palace in Fremont. According to Mortenson, one out of three children born in rural Pakistan dies before the age of one, and the literacy rate for females is only 2-5%. Said Mortenson, "Globally, 110 million children cannot go to school because of bigotry, poverty, war, and discrimination."

The solution, according to Mortenson, lies in educating girls. He noted that female literacy has the threefold result of reducing infant mortality, reducing population explosion, and improving the global environment.

Quoting an African proverb, Mortenson said: "If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community."

Mortenson added that whenever he asks Pakistani and Afghan mothers what they want, they never ask for better houses or material goods. Instead, they invariably say they want their babies to live and they want their children to go to school.

Mortenson's dedication to the education of these children is particularly admirable given the harsh and dangerous conditions that at times confront him. On his quest to build schools, he has been kidnapped by Pashtun tribesmen, dodged gun battles and landmines, and even survived two fatwahs from Islamic Mullahs.

His story of promoting peace through education was received with standing ovations at all three of his appearances. Said Patricia Coon, a long-time Fremont resident: "What a wonderful evening! I'm so glad and grateful I learned about it and was able to attend the events. Greg said so many things that really moved me. I had to wipe tears from my eyes more than once. His message is really one of triumph and hope. He's very inspiring."

Mortenson's work is actively supported by individuals and groups in the Tri-City area and beyond. The One Book/One Community program adopted his bestselling book, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time" and Mayor Bob Wasserman formally promoted the book for all Fremont residents to read.

In addition, a local Pennies for Peace program was organized by the AAUW to raise funds for Mortenson's work. During Mortenson's visit, Pennies for Peace Chair Sara Hinkel and Treasurer, Caroline Johnston, presented Mortenson with a check for $34,733.88. This sum of money was donated in pennies by elementary school children in Fremont and Newark. Said Mortenson before accepting the check, "There's enough pennies in the U.S. to eradicate global illiteracy."

Another local group, the Fremont Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) worked countless hours to make Mortenson's local visit a reality. Said Genevieve Angelides, Three Cups of Tea Program Manager: "AAUW and Mortenson both believe in breaking down educational barriers for all girls and women in the world, and in providing educational opportunities for all women, indeed all people, to help banish ignorance and bring about peace." To learn more about the Fremont AAUW, visit

It was clear from Mortenson's visit that our local community has tightly embraced his mission and work. Jafar Safdar, a Pakistani-American, was one of many who expressed admiration, support, and appreciation for Mortenson: "Greg Mortenson's work in the northern parts of Pakistan is simply outstanding. His passion to spread literacy in very picturesque but sadly very impoverished and remote parts of Pakistan is inspirational. Education, especially education for women, is the best and most effective weapon to neutralize religious extremism, intolerance, and violence. May Allah (God) protect him and CAI (Central Asia Institute) staff in the far flung areas of Pakistan. These areas are half a world away, but nevertheless are so critical to the peace in the U.S. and the world. He can count on the support and prayers of Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and all the other well wishes he has worldwide."

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum satisfaction in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at 510-744-1781. Her website is

(c) Anne Chan, 2009.

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