Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Times Standard (Eureka, CA) - One penny at a time (09-20-07)

The Times Standard (Eureka, CA)
One penny at a time
Sharon Letts
September 20, 2007

”When I look into the eyes of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I see my own children. I want my own kids and their counterparts to live in peace, but that will not happen unless we give them alternatives to the cycle of terrorism and war.”

-- Greg Mortenson, founder and executive director of Central Asia Institute
Rabia Sher of Arcata is planning on collecting pennies -- a lot of them.

For she knows the true value of the copper currency that many Americans consider a nuisance.

”A penny isn't valued in the states any longer,” said Sher, founder of the Roshni Center for Women in northern Pakistan, during a recent presentation at Grant Elementary School in Eureka. “But, a penny will buy a pencil in Pakistan, and one pencil will allow a child to go to school.”

Pennies for Peace is an international campaign developed by the Central Asia Institute. The campaign is focused on raising the awareness of children all over the globe about the need to help others. The program also builds schools in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Sher initially saw a need for improving economic growth through educational training while visiting Pakistan in 2000.

Since that trip, she has been working to enlighten people to the plight of the Pakistanis, first opening the Roshni Center for Women -- a place that helps young women learn skills, such as sewing. Sher's latest crusade is the Pennies for Peace campaign, as well as a letter-writing project involving schoolchildren.

”I read Greg Mortenson's book, 'Three Cups of Tea,' and I thought, 'He's telling my story,'” Sher explained of the man who founded the Central Asia Institute. “After I finished reading it, I called the Pennies for Peace office in Montana and told Director Christiana Leitinger that I wanted to bring that program to Humboldt.”

The Central Asia Institute was established in 1996 after Mortenson made a trip up K2 -- the second highest mountain in the world --and after a stay in the northern mountain village of Karakoram in Pakistan, where he saw a need and was compelled to help the children there, with a bigger picture of global peace.

According to its Web site (, the organization's mission is to “promote and support community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in mountain regions of Central Asia.”

”The theory is that if you educate a boy, you educate an individual,” Sher said, “but, if you educate a girl, you educate the community. Some men in Pakistan feel that it's evil to educate women, but things can and are changing slowly.”

Sher said that part of that change is due to the education of children, but to get that education, she said, the simplest needs must be met -- like owning a pencil.

The penny, or 1 percent of a dollar, represents the 1 percent of a gross domestic product goal set by the United Nations in the 1970s ( The goal was for wealthy countries to give foreign aid to impoverished nations on a yearly basis.

Sher is now bringing Pennies for Peace to Humboldt County -- one school at time. The program involves children dropping pennies into a jar in the classroom. Sher has also created a pen-pal program, which will encourage local children to write letters to children in northern Pakistan.

The pen pals and the Pennies for Peace campaign are two separate projects for Sher. She said that the pennies gathered will go to the Central Asia Institute and will be put toward the building of schools, while the letters are a more personal goal that Sher feels will enrich the lives of the children.

”The children there live in extreme poverty,” she said. “Most of them will never leave the village. I was the first foreigner they had ever seen. The letters will open up a whole new world for them.”

Grant Elementary School has joined in the campaign, and third-grade teacher Carol Goodwyn is just one of the teachers involved in both Pennies for Peace and the pen-pal program.

”Very few people actually hand-write letters today,” Goodwyn said. “Many of the children are very interested in writing letters to children their age in another country. Starting friendly letter writing also fits in our core curriculum and with the California state standards for third grade.

”The children will be able to address the standards in a real-life way, outside of the school or the family,” Goodwyn added. “It will give them a whole new perspective on what a letter can do.”

As for the Pennies for Peace campaign, Goodwyn said the school is already off to a good start.

”The day after Rabia gave her presentation on Pennies for Peace,” she said, “a fourth-grade boy came into school with a bag of pennies and said, 'Where's the jar?'”

Grant Elementary School Principal Bill Cannady said he's happy to be a part of both campaigns, which, he said, follow the school's philosophy.

”It goes right along with the five core values from the Community of Caring established by Eunice Kennedy Shriver that our school practices: caring, respect, responsibility, trust and family,” he said. “It's what we have to do in this world.”

For more information about Pennies for Peace, visit the Web site at To find out how to get involved in Pennies for Peace locally, or to be a part of the pen-pal program, call Rabia Sher at 826-7123, or e-mail her at
(c) 2007 Times Standard. All Rights Reserved. Used With Permission.