Copper pennies lay in various piles across Marlene Wilson's fourth-grade classroom at Hillcrest Elementary School in Oakland. Students sit on the floor stuffing coins into paper penny rolls and create posters to alert their school and community about raising money for "Pennies for Peace" — an international program to help communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan through education.
"Each year the students are involved in some kind of community service like coat drives, food drives and just collecting donations in general," said Michelle Meyers, volunteer community service coordinator for her 10-year-old daughter Ella Taggart's class. "This year, we wanted to do something that actually was a hands-on approach. It's more meaningful that way."
"It's never been about how much money we can raise. The kids are learning the value of a penny in other countries. If they see a penny on the ground now, it means nothing, but it means everything to a place overseas," said Donna Hanson, also a volunteer community service coordinator for her 10-year-old son Jack's fourth-grade class. "It really hit the students when we showed them the impact of one penny — how one penny could buy one pencil or 20 pennies could buy 3 erasers and help their education. Education is the key to peace because it breaks the poverty cycle and helps people make better choices."
The project originated from the children's version of the book, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace, One School at A Time." The book's author, Bay Area native Greg Mortensen, recounts how he built and supported a school in Pakistan with the help of students from one elementary school in Wisconsin. They raised 62,345 pennies ($623.45) on their own initiative in 1994. Tens of thousands of students around the globe have now taken part in the nonprofit program since and so far have helped build dozens of schools in the two Middle Eastern countries.
Wilson has taught one of the two fourth-grade classes at Hillcrest this past year. She said not only are the kids setting up big water jugs and coffee cans anywhere they can so family, friends and teachers can drop off spare change, they've come up with other ways to raise money — like setting up lemonade stands, writing news releases, launching an awareness letter campaign to Congress and planning this week's bake sale at the school.
"I think it's just amazing. One of the best things about this project is seeing the depth of compassion of these students," said Wilson, who's taught the last 18 years. "Reading the kids' version of 'Three Cups of Tea" really inspired this whole project. Kids keep bringing in all these pennies and being so generous because I think they realize just how lucky they are."
It was 9-year-old Mia Martin's idea to organize the bake sale. The Hillcrest fourth-grader said while making shortbread cookies with her mom and talking about the "Pennies for Peace" project she put the two together and brought the suggestion to her teacher.
"We learned through the 'Three Cups of Tea' book that Pennies for Peace is really doing good things for kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Mia said. "I never knew it was so hard for them to live — they are masters of survival for doing what they do."
She added, "Almost all the girls are not getting schooled at all and the boys only go through kindergarten and first grade. This money is going to go toward building schools, giving teachers salaries and school supplies to help those kids get a better education. It gives me a good feeling that I'm going to help kids have a better life."
For more information, go to www.PenniesforPeace.org.