HEIDELBERG, Germany - When Heidelberg Girl Scout Cara Burmedi, 17, started working with Razia's Ray of Hope two years ago, she didn't realize the impact the Afghanistan-based organization would have on her.
On Oct. 30, Burmedi invited friend and mentor Razia Jan to speak with community members at the Village Pavilion Community Center in Heidelberg. During her Germany tour, Jan also spoke in Kaiserslautern, at Ramstein Air Base and other communities and schools.
Jan is the founder of Razia's Ray of Hope, a non-profit based in the village of Deh'Subz, northeast of Kabul, that focuses on improving the lives of women and children through community-based education, particularly the Zabuli Education Center.
"Razia's efforts are amazing; she has sacrificed so much to help others, it is really inspiring," Burmedi said.
Jan, 68, an Afghan national who moved to Duxbury, Mass., in 1970 to pursue a master's degree, was a small-business and homeowner. She moved back to Kabul in October 2008 and has dedicated her life and own money to provide girls a free education.
"I have a passion for really helping ... one person can make a lot of changes in the world. You don't have to be rich, to have money," Jan said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Jan -- the only Afghan or Muslim in her community -- rallied her town to send some 400 homemade blankets to rescue workers at Ground Zero. She has sent care packages to deployed troops in Afghanistan and she coordinated for the delivery of more than 30,000 pairs of shoes to needy Afghan children through Operation Shoe Fly.
"9/11 changed my life," Jan said, adding she was working on a wedding gown while watching TV in her shop when it happened. "What really struck me was the only people going back were firemen and some policemen. They went in and risked their lives," she said.
Jan realized then she also wanted to do more than help from afar.
"The terrorists who attacked were not Afghans, [but] the cancer was in Afghanistan. With all this chaos and things that happen, there is still a lot of lawlessness, corruption. But I can see hope in these things," Jan said.
Jan herself went to school in the '60s, where young ladies sometimes wore miniskirts and shorts and went without head coverings, but with the rise of the Taliban and other factors, many girls were being forced to marry much-older men while still teenagers.
An all-girls school was the answer to help break the cycle, Jan figured.
"I think Razia is right when she says education is the only way for the girls to gain self-respect.
"If people don't explain their rights to them, how should they now that they don't have to marry when they are 12?" Burmedi said.
Jan took about $120,000 in raised funds to build a school that services some seven nearby villages, where Jan said many of the families are particularly conservative and whose daughters otherwise would not get any sort of education.
"The local men were very stubborn. They wanted a boys' school. When we opened, they didn't think it would last. "But we've already registered another 50 for kindergarten [this year,] and the girls are learning much better than their brothers," Jan said.
The school, now about to start its fifth year, opened with 108 girls and now has about 350, the oldest being 19. Jan and her staff -- former refugees educated in Pakistan who travel daily from Kabul -- provide textbooks, school supplies, uniforms and snacks for the students, who study about 10 subjects, including English one hour a day.
"They will learn things they need to know, like how to speak English and how to use proper grammar and spelling so that one day maybe they can leave Afghanistan and shape their own future, away from the Taliban's influence," Burmedi said.
With 424 private schools that charge a fee, Jan said hers is the only one that's free.
"We've had certificates from the Minister of Education for the past three years, and we keep the best records," Jan said.
"But I'm one person, and I'm not young. I really want to focus on the school and make it flourish.
"Maybe 100 years from now, it will still be a girl's school," she added.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed; Jan is currently one of 10 candidates for CNN's annual Top Ten Heroes competition.
If Jan wins Dec. 2, she will donate the $250,000 prize to the school. In addition, Razia's Ray of Hope is supported in part by the Khaled Hosseini Foundation, named for Afghan-born American Khaled Hosseini, whose New York Times best-seller "The Kite Runner" was made into a film in 2007.
When Burmedi heard about the initiative from friend Anita Sheehan, who knew people who worked with Razia's Ray of Hope, she decided the organization was the perfect service project for the Girl Scout Girltopia Award.
"Part of the Girl Scout Promise is, 'I promise [...] to be a sister to every Girl Scout,'" Burmedi said.
"That's why I thought this project fit perfectly for my Girltopia Journey, because I would be helping girls around the world."
With that, Burmedi started her first book drive with donated books in late 2010, raising $1,260 for Razia's Ray of Hope. Touched by Burmedi's enthusiasm, Jan asked to meet when she was in Augsburg in July 2011.
Burmedi said that meeting was the inspiration she needed to continue working with the foundation.
"After that, I started working on my Gold Award, and the first step was the coat drive.
"These girls often have a long way to walk to school, [so] we started collecting coats a few months before Christmas, but were finally able to send the boxes around March 2012," Burmedi said.
About 200 coats were donated by U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg community members.
"Razia just got the boxes a few weeks ago, so now the girls will have warm winter coats on their way to the school this winter," she added.
The coats are much-needed, as the country's temperatures can dip into the negative digits during winter. Having a coat also means there is one less excuse for a girl to not come to class.
"Every day, I can see a difference. I have a lot of fun; that's what's keeping me alive.
"Otherwise, I would have been gone a long time ago," Jan said.
For more information about Razia's Ray of Hope, visit www.raziasrayofhope.org.