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Greg Mortenson connects Evergreen to a world of need

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By Stephen Knapp

Celebrity comes in a variety of flavors to suit a variety of tastes. Some people like the Hollywood kind, lots of sugar and sprinkles but little substance. Others prefer bland political fare that nourishes but never satisfies. Judging from the stellar turnout in Evergreen High School’s gymnasium on Jan. 17, folks hereabouts crave a wholesome and infinitely richer sort of celebrity, one that serves engagement instead of escape and offers more than tired platitudes and empty promises.

Truth is, Greg Mortenson, executive director of the non-profit Central Asia Institute and author of New York Times non-fiction best-seller “Three Cups of Tea,” is one of relatively few Americans who could draw more than 1,200 mountain area residents out of their warm homes on a frigid January night, and probably the only one who could elicit a standing ovation before uttering a single word. In an increasingly violent, impersonal and uncertain world, Mortenson speaks eloquently of human connections and eventual peace, and that message resonates loudly in the Colorado foothills.

“I feel like I’ve been a part of this community, part of this family, for a long time,” said Mortenson, who lives in Montana with his wife, Tara, and their two daughters. “People here feel a connection to people of the mountains half a world away.”

If Mortenson has achieved a measure of fame, he did it the hard way. Following a disastrous attempt to scale the Himalayan peak K2 more than a decade ago, Mortenson was welcomed and cared for by the people of Korphe, a desperately poor village in Pakistan’s remote Baltistan region. During his months there, he grew to love his new friends but lamented the lack of education that condemned the village’s children to lives of ignorance and poverty.

“I rashly promised a little girl that I would build a school for her,” he said. “That promise changed my life.”

In 1996, Mortenson founded CAI for the purpose of building and endowing schools in the far reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and immediately set about soliciting contributions from America’s well-heeled celebrity class. Aside from a $100 check from Tom Brokaw, it was a wasted effort. Undeterred, Mortenson set his sights a bit lower.

“My mom, who’s a teacher, invited me to talk to her fourth-grade class. Within six weeks, they collected 62,000 pennies.”

It was a wake-up call for Mortenson, and an elegant solution to his fund-raising dilemma. Based in Evergreen and run by former Montessori teacher Christiane Leitinger, CAI’s unorthodox financial arm, Pennies for Peace, relies on the tiny contributions of the country’s smallest citizens, and with huge results. Pennies for Peace has grown into an international venture and, to date, has built and endowed 65 schools serving more than 25,000 Central Asian children. By way of perspective, consider that building and endowing a single school in distant Baltistan costs some $35,000, or 3.5 million shiny copper pennies.

“It wasn’t sports stars or celebrities who built those schools; it was children,” Mortenson said. “Pennies for Peace is driven by kids, and they can teach us a lot about caring and sharing.”

On Jan. 17, Mortenson’s visit kicked off with a posh reception at Creekside Cellars. Nearly 100 people paid $75 apiece for the chance to get some face time with an exceptional man, and most of that cash will end up as blackboards, chalk and erasers far away.

About the same time the first cork was popping on Main Street, the EHS parking lot began filling with early arrivals for Mortenson’s 7:30 p.m. main event. Comfortably situated on a bench just inside the front door, EHS sophomores Austin Richards and Kyle Martin greeted each new arrival.

“We’re with the Peace Jam Club,” said Austin, directing a middle-aged couple toward the gym with a vague wave of his hand. “We’ve been here since about 6 o’clock setting up chairs. We also have a wishing well down yonder to collect contributions for Pennies for Peace. We think it’s a very cool thing he’s doing.”

“It also appeals to us that he climbs mountains,” added Martin, meaning it.

The astounding success of “Three Cups of Tea” has predictably translated into a higher profile for Mortenson, who’s appeared on NBC’s “Today” and been profiled on the NBC Nightly News. That higher profile has increased his demand as a speaker, and he now spends about half the calendar bringing his message to eager audiences across the country, and at far more commodious venues than high school gymnasiums. Why, one could wonder, did Mortenson take time to address 1,200 when he could as easily address 5,000? For that, one can thank Pastor Vera Guebert-Steward of Evergreen Lutheran Church and her husband, Mark.

“In 2000 a guy called me up and said his name was Greg,” recalled Mark, who coordinates events at REI’s flagship store in Denver. “He had a pretty interesting story, and I said, ‘Sure.’ About 50 people showed up for his talk, but you can’t listen to him without appreciating his knowledge, his humility and his forthrightness.”

That brief introduction sparked a long friendship and, over dinner with the Mortensons last year, Pastor Vera convinced Greg to put Evergreen on his itinerary.

“I’ve been working on this for about six months,” said Pastor Vera, as a thick stream of people, many of them holding copies of “Three Cups of Tea,” poured into the gym. “We were originally going to give away 500 tickets and have it in the high school auditorium, but those tickets went in a couple hours. Then we were going to simulcast it into the cafeteria, but those tickets went even faster. The gym was the biggest place we could find in Evergreen, but there are still a whole lot of people who wanted tickets and couldn’t get them.”

A delegation from Evergreen Middle School comprising the entire student council had come to deliver a big giant check into Mortenson’s hands. EMS’s seventh-grade class had chosen Pennies for Peace as this year’s cause celebre and concocted a clever little game to make sure it paid.

“We called it Campaign for Change,” explained 14-year-old student council treasurer Mitch Jamison, proudly. “It’s a war between two teams with positive and negative points. Only coins were worth positive points, so if you put a dollar bill or something in the other side, they lost points.”

It was a peculiar game in which the principal winners lived 7,000 miles away, but the kids had developed a personal interest in Mortenson’s crusade, and they played for all they were worth. In learning about that distant region, they’d found much to interest and astonish them.

“Most girls there didn’t get to go to school until Greg came along,” said 12-year-old Lorna Stieren, wide-eyed and scandalized. “If women were educated, they could help the country a lot.”

“I think the biggest thing we learned is that you don’t have to have a lot of money to make a difference,” observed Kayla Cavey, 13. “It’s amazing to see what a penny can buy in Afghanistan. It’s insane.”

“We raised one thousand, five hundred, two dollars, and 11 cents,” chanted council member Carly Ratekin, 13, with a practiced musical cadence that suggested she’d been reciting that golden number nonstop for days. “It took us three weeks every day after school to count the money.”

The evening’s performance began with a charming introduction by 10-year-old Montessori student Dakota Rouse and her little sister Ellie, 5, followed by a video detailing the Pennies for Peace program and offering a personal look at the people it aims to help. It was nearly 8 o’clock by the time Mortenson finally took the floor.

In person, and to his everlasting credit, Greg Mortenson is something of an anti-celebrity. Tall and sturdily built, he wore rumpled slacks and a light sport jacket over an open-collared shirt. He spoke plainly, directly, seeking less to impress than to communicate. For about an hour he took his rapt audience along on his journey from the fatal slopes of K2, through the remarkable village of Korphe, and into the schools that Evergreen’s pennies have helped create and the lives they have changed for the better.

“Ask any Afghan woman what she wants most in life, and they’ll say they don’t want their children to die,” he said. “They know that, unless their children are educated, their society won’t change. ‘Three Cups of Tea’ is about relationships and communities, and building schools is a way to empower communities. It’s communities that will bring peace.”

While educating the poor of Pakistan and Afghanistan will surely diminish the influence that terrorist groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy in Central Asia, Mortenson doesn’t characterize his efforts there as anti-terrorist.

“Fighting terrorism is based in fear,” Mortenson said simply. “Promoting peace is based in hope, and the real enemy is ignorance.”

His presentation finished, it was time for Evergreen’s young penny-pinchers to hand over their hard-earned Abe Lincolns. Besides the EMS kids’ $2,500, the students at King-Murphy Elementary managed to round up another $300, conveniently matching the contribution made by the Sunday school classes at Evergreen Lutheran Church. Taken together, it was a fine start on a new school.

Surely exhausted after giving three presentations in as many days, Mortenson headed upstairs to sign copies of his book and answer such questions as people might have. In a trice, at least 50 people lined up for a signature and an interview, and each one of them received his full attention, his thoughtful regard, the best he had to give them. It’s not your typical celebrity stuff, but, then, Mortenson will never be mistaken for your typical celebrity.

As in real estate, location is everything when it comes to raising dough, and the Peace Jam Club shrewdly set up its trash can ee er ee wishing well, directly outside the gymnasium doors. As a crush of freshly inspired humanity flowed past, sophomores Annalise Murphy and Elyse Kupfer offered what they could in the way of friendly encouragement, and with remarkable success. Long before the last thoughtful spectator made her way upstairs, the well bottom held more silver than copper, and more green than anything. And that wasn’t even the half of it.

“Look at what people put in the wishing well,” said Murphy, an expression of near-disbelief on her face and a colorful stack of paper gripped tightly in her hand. “There are 14 checks here, and they add up to $1,180. Can you believe that?”

Pastor Vera can — quite easily, in fact.

“A lot of people in Evergreen have a heart for Greg’s mission, a heart for living beyond themselves,” she said. “That’s what makes our community what it is. That’s who we are.”