Thursday, February 28, 2008

One Promise

Recently, I attended the annual Rochester Reads Author Visit with two of my very lovely book club friends. We had read and enjoyed his book Three Cups of Tea several months ago for our monthly book club selection, so naturally the three of us were looking forward to meeting Greg Mortensen and hearing him speak in person.

The auditorium at John Marshall High School was packed. The organizers had also set up television monitors in the hallway in case of a standing-room only crowd. I was surprised to see so many older faces in the audience; I was expecting a younger, stereotypical peace-activist-type crowd, but I should know better than that. I think almost everyone in this world wants peace, especially grandmothers and grandfathers for their grandchildren.

The program opened with a musical presentation by a traveling, performing choir whose primary purpose is to help raise funds for good causes like Mr. Mortensen's organization, the Central Asia Institute. Mr. Mortensen was greeted with heavy applause and a standing ovation as he took the stage.

I was curious and excited to meet this person who had orchestrated so much change with a promise that seemed more like a wish. As he described in his book, he had unsuccessfully attempted to scale the world's second largest mountain peak, K2, in Pakistan, and as he descended the mountain, dejected, cold, and sick, he was befriended by a village of people. They were ashamed to show him their primitive school, and when a little girl asked him to help, he promoised to return one day and build them a school.

I think of my own limited but awe-inspiring travel experiences to other parts of the world, and my time spent in classrooms right here in Minnesota with students in need. What would I have done if a young child had asked me that question? Would you please build us a school? Would I have said, yes, of course?! No. My heart is full of love and compassion, but I would have thought, I don't know anything about building schools. I would have said, I'll pray for you. And then I would have gone home and prayed for those children. I thought about Romario, the little boy we met in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, who opened our cab doors for us at Wal-Mart, at ten o'clock at night, when he should have been home, tucked in bed and ready for school the next day. I thought of the little girl who sold us trinkets at the restaurant in Bucerias when she should have been in school. Their eyes and their smiles are imprinted in my heart, and I still pray for them. I thought of the children in Tijuana, just Mitchell and Max's age, who wanted to sell us chicle. What if someone had made a promise to help them, and kept it?

Greg Mortensen went home and he probably prayed for them, too. Never, ever underestimate the power of prayer. But then he did more. He sold his belongings: his mountain climbing gear, his car, everything. He sent hundreds of letters, each one painstakingly typed by hand -- because he didn't know how to use a computer -- asking hundreds of celebrities and philanthropists for donations to construct a school in Pakistan. He received one response: one hundred dollars from Tom Brokaw. Still, he perservered. Eventually, some of his most generous donations came in the form of pennies from American schoolchildren.

Today, his organization has empowered people in Pakistan and Afghanistan through education. He has constructed, with the help of generous donations and devoted citizens, over seventy schools.

One little girl was the only female in her school that Greg built. When she was young, the boys threw rocks at her in the hopes of discouraging her from going to school. When she was older, the teachers didn't want to teach her. When she was high-school age, her male classmates stole her notebooks. Yet she was determined to learn, and she graduated first in her class. She received speciailized medical training for $800 and returned to her small village of 4000 people in the year 2000. Since then, not one woman has died in childbirth. Prior to her return, five to twenty woman died there in childbirth each year.

Young men who are asked to join the terrorism groups must ask the permission of their mothers. Women who themselves have been educated are more likely to say "no" to their sons and prevent them from joining extremist factions. Greg shared with us the African proverb, Educate a man and you educate an individual; educate a woman, and you educate a community. The words are not meant to be sexist; rather, they explain the way of life and the traditions of these villages.

I tucked an envelope of cash into the donation jar as we were leaving, and that good feeling still hasn't gone away. I have seen that one person really can make a difference in the lives of many. How would life be different for those thousands of children if Greg had said, I can't do that?

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