Creating Schools, And Bridges, To Children

A cup of kindness is what most of us take on New Year's Eve. A cup of kindness - and much more - is what one hard-working man tries to give to the world every single day. What he does and how he does it is our Sunday Morning cover story by Anthony Mason:

This story begins in 1993 when American Greg Mortenson set out to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, on the northern border of Pakistan.

"My sister Christa died of severe epilepsy suddenly at age 23 in '92." Mortenson told Mason. "She had an amber necklace she got in Africa and I wanted to put it on top of the mountain."

"But he didn't make it all the way..."

It's a tale that resonates with tens of thousands of schoolchildren the world over, like these third graders in Rockford, Ill.

As Hannah told it, "As he climbed farther up the mountain, it got harder to breathe -"

"So he went down," continued Grace.

"He ended up in Pakistan," Austin said.

"They thought he was a giant," Riley said, "'cause he was so tall and they're so short."

Mortenson laughed: "I was completely exhausted and emaciated. I was kind of slumping off the mountain. I had to walk 58 miles to get to the nearest village."

Editor's note:
An April 17, 2011 "60 Minutes" report quotes multiple sources saying that some of the most inspiring and dramatic stories in Greg Mortenson's best-selling books are not true, and that Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, has spent more money in the U.S. talking about education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than actually building and supporting schools there, according to an analysis of the organization's last financial report.

"The villagers took him in and nursed him back to health," the childrne continued.

"They had very little but they gave me everything they had," Mortenson said. "And I was very touched by their hospitality."

The children continued relating his story: How a guide led him into town, where he saw that children were not at school. And when he asked the children where their school was, he was shown a piece of flat ground.

"I guess I had that kind of 'eureka' moment," Mortenson said. "I immediately, or in a rash moment, I said, 'I promise, when I come back I'll build you a school.'

"And little did I know that'd change my life forever."

And not only Greg Mortenson's life, but the lives of thousands of Pakistani and Afghani, children living in remote, war-torn regions. Suddenly this 36-year-old E.R. nurse from Montana who'd been living off odd jobs had found a purpose.

"I had many lessons to learn," he said.

He shares those lessons in his book, "Three Cups of Tea" (Penguin), which has been on the bestseller list for some 100 weeks.

His first lesson would be a hard one: raising money to build a school.

"Well, I had no clue how to raise money," he told mason. "I looked up the names of 580 celebrities and movie stars and sports heroes and then I proceeded over ten weeks to hand-type 580 letters. 'Dear Michael Jordan,' 'Dear Sylvester Stallone,' and so on. And I thought, that's not too bad.

"Well, guess what happened? Nothing happened."

Next: "He sold everything he owned, and lived in his car."

His mother, the principal at Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wisconsin, invited him to come and talk to her kids.

From that talk, another lesson. Answers come when you least expect them.

"A fourth grader named Jeffrey came up to me and he looked at me deadpan and said, 'I have a piggy bank at home. I'm gonna help you raise money for that school.' I didn't think anything of it."

But six weeks later, that school had raised $623.40 … in pennies.

"It was the biggest check I had ever gotten!"

When Mortenson spread the word of what the children had done, checks from adults started pouring in. He raised the $12,000 he thought he'd need and, a year after his first visit, he returned to Pakistan to meet with the village leader, Hajai Ali.

"And he said, 'If you want to build a school, first we're gonna have to build a bridge.'" Mortenson laughed. "So I had to come back!"

"You hadn't counted on that," Mason said.

"Come back to America, raise $10,000 more."

It took another year, but in 1995, Mortenson returned again to the village.

"And in 10 weeks they built a 284-foot span bridge over the Bralda River. And it was an amazing engineering feat. They carried five 800-pound steel cables 18 miles up the river.

"When they built the bridge in ten weeks I realized that they were very serious about a school."

By now, Mortenson had co-founded his non-profit, Central Asia Institute, and was beginning to gain support for what he was doing.

But the key lesson he needed to learn was yet to come ...

"I spent six months living in the village trying to get the school built and we weren't doing very well," he said. "And one day Hajai Ali took me by the side and he said, 'If you really want to build a school here, son, you need to sit down and be quiet and let us do the work.' And in six weeks the school got built. I had to let go and let the community be empowered."

Army Lt. Colonel Christopher Kolenda, now stationed at the Pentagon, saw Mortenson's work firsthand in Afghanistan.

"Greg is a national treasure," Kolanda told Mason. "And the work that his organization does has a tremendous impact in every village it touches.

"One of the key things that Greg and his organization do is they do a tremendous amount of coordination with the elders to make sure that they're gonna not only build the school but they're going to make sure it's got an education program, and that they're going to manage it after the fact."

Soon Mortenson began to realize his schools could become a building block for peace if he could bring girls into the classroom. Because when those educated girls grow up to become mothers, they are less likely to want their children to go to war.

"The Taliban were mainly targeting illiterate, impoverished society to get recruits because educated women were refusing their sons to join the Taliban," he said.

Because of this, Mortenson says, the Taliban often attacks schools that girls attend. But, in 15 years, only one of his schools has been hit.

"Why aren't they bombing your schools?" Mason asked.

"Well, our schools are very desired by the communities."

"And other ones aren't?"

"The missing link there is that there's no local community involvement," Mortenson said. "Outside contractors come in and plunk in a beautiful school."

"He's got exactly the right strategy," Kolenda said. "Villagers built it with their own hands. They don't want to see anybody to mess with it."

Colonel Kolenda, who led an Army unit in Afghanistan in a region around one of Mortenson's schools, noticed something remarkable:

"The level of violence emanating from that area as a part of this entire effort dropped precipitously," he said.

To the third graders of Rockford, Ill., this is one lesson they are happy to explain.

"People would respect each other instead of being all mean and grumpy," Savannah said.

"I don't wanna have any wars with them anymore," Umariam said.

Kyle said, "Because we really need to stop so more people in our country will stop dying and we can have happier life instead of just worrying about wars."

Toward that end, they pooled their pennies. Their school donated nearly $3,000 to Pennies for Peace, Mortenson's children's organization.

"I lost a lot of pennies but it's for a good cause," Savannah said.

"When I look in the eyes of my children, I see the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Mortenson said, "and I think we should do everything we can to leave our children a legacy of peace. Those first few kids in school is kind of like planting a seed of hope."

Greg Mortenson's relentless focus on the next generation, both here and overseas, seems to be making an impression. So far, his organization has built 78 schools, and eight more are under construction.

He plans to keep building schools as long as there are lessons to learn … and teach.

For more information:

  • Central Asia Institute
  • Pennies For Peace
  • Three Cups Of Tea