Educate Girls, Change Society

Over the past two decades, renowned philanthropist Greg Mortenson has built schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and promoted community based education and literacy, especially for girls. Mortenson will be a keynote speaker at NAESP’s 89th Annual Convention and Exposition (April 8-11 in Houston), and he recently sat down with NAESP’s Executive Director Gail Connelly to discuss his work and the two women who inspired him to undertake it.
After his sister Christa died from epilepsy in 1992, Greg decided to honor her memory by climbing Pakistan’s K2 mountain. He failed to reach the mountain’s peak and stumbled into the remote village of Korphe, where he was surprised to discover that the village lacked a school. “I saw 84 children writing with sticks in the sand and there was no teacher there, which really struck me … And so I made a rash promise to help them build a school,” said Mortenson.
Back in the United States, Greg struggled to raise the $12,000 he needed to undertake the project. He wrote 580 letters to celebrities explaining the project and his need for money but only received one check. He began working double shifts as a nurse to try and generate the needed revenue when his mother, Dr. Jerene Mortenson, invited him to speak at the elementary school where she served as a principal.
“It was the first time I had spoken to anybody [about the project], and heaven forbid you go to an elementary school to raise money,” said Mortenson. “But what happened was a fourth grader named Jeffrey came up to me and he said ‘I have a penny back at home and I’m going to help you.’ And I didn’t think much about it but then they [the students] raised 62,345 pennies.”
The money the students raised helped Greg reach $12,000, and he constructed the school for Korphe. Inspired by the philanthropic potential of students, Greg established “Pennies for Peace,” a service-learning program that is currently in place at over 4,000 schools. The program comes with lesson plans and study guides that are designed to help students broaden their cultural horizons as they give to those in need.
As he continues to promote community-based education in some of the most remote regions of the world, Greg is adamant about the importance of giving children, especially girls, the opportunity to learn. “In Africa, as a child, I learned a proverb: If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you can educate a girl, you educate a community,” he said. “If we don’t educate girls, nothing will change as a society.”
You can listen go Greg and Gail’s entire conversation on NAESP Radio.