Brussels students help Afghani counterparts, a penny at a time
June 15, 2009
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- How much is a penny worth'
Not much, you might think, and it's become less and less over the years.
For example, it takes 44 pennies to buy a postage stamp that will mail a first class letter via the U.S. postal system. A popular U.S. weekly periodical sells for 495 pennies at a newsstand back in the U.S. Here in Europe, the small Euro cent has similarly low purchasing power. Both U.S. and European cents are becoming broadly unpopular with their respective publics, and are frequently kept in drawers and jars in lieu of being spent in western societies.
But here's a sample of what a few pennies will buy in Afghanistan:
*one U.S. cent: one pencil
*one Euro cent: one eraser
*15 pennies: one notebook
*200 pennies: one teacher's salary for a day
*2000 pennies: one student's supplies for one year
*60,000 pennies: one teacher's annual salary
Since late February, at the suggestion of Brussels American School parents Patty Buzzerio-Glendening and Melanie Mills and the cooperation of a number of BAS teachers, the school has been running a "Pennies for Peace" campaign. The campaign has been collecting coins (both Euro and American) in the school's front lobby, as well as at the U.S. Army Garrison Brussels Library, Brussels AFEES Shoppette and Brussels Thrift Store.
As school broke for summer, the BAS campaign had collected $834.30. And that's a lot of pennies.
This drive was inspired by author Greg Mortensen, author of the 2006 New York Times best-seller, "Three Cups of Tea." The book chronicles Mortenson's transition from mountain-climber to humanitarian, and his efforts to reduce poverty and educate girls in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mortenson is co-founder of the "Central Asia Institute," which has built more than 78 schools in the most remote areas of the countries. This non-profit organization builds and maintains schools in remote mountain regions of those countries. To date, more than 100 schools that serve 28,000 students have been built.
The Mortenson work had been read by a book club that Buzzerio-Glendening, an Army spouse, belongs. She was both moved and inspired to discuss it with some of her children's BAS teachers.
But the BAS campaign was about a lot more than raising funds for a cause, however worthy the cause might be.
"The Mortenson book is excellent contemporary literature, and it's about a subject that all of our students, even in the elementary grades, can relate to," explained fifth-grade teacher Annie Bryant. "They all know what teachers are and do, they know what students need in order to learn. They know what a classroom is. From the building [of a new gym and arts center] that's going on at BAS, they know what construction is. Finally, they understand and can empathize with the needs of other students."
"We're fortunate the book has been condensed into versions suitable for younger readers," said middle school teacher Brenda Quinn. "That's allowed us to share it with all of our students, especially the very youngest ones."
Quinn's middle school research group read and researched the "Young Readers" edition of "Three Cups of Tea."
"They really got into it," says Quinn. "One of my classes sponsored a hat day at school. For 50 cents, a student bought the privilege of wearing a hat for a day at school, with all proceeds going to 'Pennies for Peace.'"
The basic story transcended all grade levels, with the entire elementary school (grades K-5) having the children's version, "Listen to the Wind," read to them by upperclassmen.
"The story itself is wonderful," said first-grade teacher Martha Proietto. "It really kept my students' attention. But it was great to have it read to them by big kids they see, every day, on campus. To a first-grader, an eighth-grader is practically an adult."
One of the eighth-grade readers, Paul Schlattman, agreed.
"I was impressed with how Mrs. Proietto's students listened to me," he said. "They really gave me their full attention."
The other benefit, according to Proietto, is the leadership experience for the older students.
"The smaller children really do hold the high school students in awe," Proietto explained. "The experience of reading to the younger kids makes the older kids try especially hard to be worthy of that respect. The upperclassmen rise to the occasion. They don't want to be embarrassed."
The BAS "Pennies for Peace" campaign, built around the framework of the Mortenson book, teaches children the rewards of sharing and working together to bring hope and educational opportunities to children in Central Asia.
"As BAS students participated in 'Pennies for Peace,' they broadened their cultural horizons, and came to understand philanthropy one penny at a time," Buzzerio-Glendening said. "Even the youngest students know the relatively low value of a U.S. or Euro cent, but they could see with their own eyes how our big plastic jug filled up with small change because of their efforts. From the book, they know their efforts will go a long way in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
BAS librarian Carol-Ann Whipple is delighted that a piece of contemporary literature is serving as an educational vehicle, and not only in a classroom setting. She believes the work has "awakened a sense of giving," and "served as a bridge to other far-away places" for BAS students, she said.
"It's helped broaden their sense of community," Whipple added.
The campaign has also improved Whipple's fitness, Buzzerio-Glendenning quipped.
"Mrs. Whipple, at the end of each day, was the one who moved our main collection container - a 5-gallon jug - to safe-keeping, from the school lobby to the library, and back out again the next morning. That jug got heavier and heavier as the weeks and months went on."
At a time when U.S. national political and military leaders have gone on record as saying that military hard power is only a part of the solution to unrest and terrorism in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, students at a small school in Brussels are doing their bit, a penny at a time, to try and make a difference.
"Educating young people in these countries can help break the cycle that terrorism comes from," says BAS eighth-grader Mihael Podplatnik. "I'm glad we're able to help."