Thursday, May 13, 2010

Greg Mortenson in Olympia: "Having Met The Students Here, I Know That The World Is In Good Hands...."

Above: Greg Mortenson with Olympia High School (OHS) community service club members.

by Janine Gates

Author, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortenson had a busy day in Olympia today, thanks to the efforts of Olympia High School (OHS) students Kaycee Keegan and Teasha Feldman.

Many local organizations and individuals helped the day go off without a hitch, including local Rotary clubs and The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound.

Above: Mortenson on stage at Olympia High School today.

Their efforts, along with Olympia High School’s junior Rotary group, Interact, raised the necessary $25,000 honorarium to bring Mortenson to Olympia for a full day of activities. The money goes towards Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute to build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mortenson is the author of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School At a Time, which has sold over 3.5 million copies and published in 39 countries. His latest book is Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mortenson’s visit in Olympia started at Olympia High School with two half-hour assemblies. Mortenson had lunch with representatives of eight area Rotary groups, attended a rally at the Capitol Steps on the Capitol Campus, and finished the day at St. Martin’s Pavilion with an evening talk and slideshow for the public with about 3,000 in attendance. Everywhere he went, he signed books and spoke with each person without being hurried.

At the end of his presentation at Olympia High School, Mortenson spontaneously asked how many students and staff there were. Principal Matt Grant said about 1,850. Mortenson said he would donate 1,850 copies of his new book, “Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Last year, OHS English teacher Todd McDougall had his students read Mortenson’s first book, Three Cups of Tea. After writing Mortenson a letter, Mortenson’s publishing company sent 150 copies of the book to McDougall, and that began Kaycee Keegan's interest in having Mortenson come to Olympia.

Mortenson was clearly impressed with the community service efforts of the Olympia High School students and mentioned several of them specifically throughout the day.

After hearing the students describe their club activities and individual projects, such as writing our troops throughout the world, organizing clothing and food drives, raising money for cancer research, maintaining trails, planting native species, building gardens for low-income people, painting faces for children at Lakefair and more, Mortenson said, “I visit 140 schools a year, and having met the students here, I know that the world is in good hands.”

Above: Olympia High School community service club students spoke about their clubs and activities. Alex Arbogast, 17, speaking, and Caitlin Cusack, 18, spoke about the blood drive they coordinated in cooperation with the Puget Sound Blood Bank, for their senior project. “We had 120 participants and saved 330 lives,” said Arbogast. Their all-day blood drive was held in March at the school.

Above: Mortenson signs a book for Cameron Landry, 16, at Olympia High School. Landry videotaped Mortenson's talk for Olympia High School's Olympia News Network. Mortenson asked Landry to send him a copy of the tape.

Senator Karen Fraser attended the Rotary luncheon, the rally at the Capitol, and the evening talk at St. Martin's University, saying she bought several of his books for herself and her granddaughters. "(At the luncheon), he was very complimentary about our community here - he said he can see that the students here are highly engaged - way more than in other areas of the country. He says we're a model," said Fraser.

Above: Greg Mortenson speaks at a rally for education at the Capitol steps in Olympia today. Mortenson met students at Stevens Field at Lincoln Elementary for a walk to the Capitol Steps. Once there, speakers addressed the crowd, the Centennial Elementary Choir sang and several children presented their school collections to donate to Mortenson's Pennies for Peace program.

Above: Jade Taylor, 10, and Jordan Taylor, 9, show off a check they presented to Mortenson at the Capitol steps today, representing $3,862.90 collected by students for Pennies for Peace at Centennial Elementary School. Several local schools also collected funds to donate to Mortenson's Pennies for Peace organization including Lincoln Elementary, Alki, Pioneer and Waldorf.

Above: Kaycee Keegan is interviewed by KGY announcer Nathan Lee today near the Capitol Building.

Relating to students throughout the day on a personal level, Mortenson touched on the subjects of education, bullying, overpopulation, child slavery, and poverty, emphasizing that education is the key to solving many of these problems.

Asked if he feels like he is in any danger doing what he does, Mortenson admitted that he gets a lot of hate mail for promoting the education of girls. “Ignorance breeds hatred,” and said the Taliban are just being bullies. “It’s a big problem in this country too. Bullies are the most insecure of all.”

Helping students appreciate living in Olympia, Mortenson said, "The Taliban destroy schools. Why are they so terrified of a girl going to school? Imagine coming to school tomorrow and finding it in rubble...."

Speaking of child slavery, Mortenson asked children to look closely at a soccer ball. "If it says it's Made in Pakistan, who do you think made it? There's small leather felt patches on it. It's made by a child because their hands can do those small stitches...."

In his evening talk to 3,000 people at St. Martin's University in Lacey, Mortenson told many stories from both his books that have now become famous worldwide.

In her moving introduction of Mortenson, Keegan, 18, said, "When I started this, I had no idea there would be so much interest. It seemed surreal that he would accept the invitation, but he did and here he is! What started as a great idea is now a reality. I am often asked why we are sending so much money to Afghanistan and Pakistan when we have so many needs in our community. Well, when I read Three Cups of Tea, I was so inspired, I started volunteering at the Salvation Army. After tonight, you too will want to be a better person and see what things you can do in this community."

Mortenson thanked Keegan for her tenacity, saying there was no way he could say no to her invitation.

In a brief video played of Admiral Mike Muller, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Muller said, "When men in our profession talk about great men, we usually talk about men of war, rarely a man of peace. one of the greatest men of peace I know...."

Mortenson again repeated several community service projects accomplished by the students at Olympia High School, and said he ranked their level of community service as number one in the country, followed by students in Topeka, Kansas and Tyler, Texas.

Audience member Rick Panowicz, with his dogeared, newly signed copy of Three Cups of Tea, said, "I hope he wins the Nobel Peace Prize next time."

Above: Mortenson speaks with Colonel Michael Kolodziej, center, Deputy Commander of the Joint Task Force Medical East of the 344th Combat Support Hospital. Part of his mission is to help the local nationals in Afghanistan improve their health care system. His wife, Major Pamela Kolodziej, of the 75th Training Division of Ft. Dix, New Jersey, says her husband has made Mortenson's books required reading by members of his unit.

For more information about the Central Asia Institute, go to

For more information about Pennies for Peace, go to

For more stories by Janine Gates about the efforts by Olympia High School students Kaycee Keegan and Teasha Feldman to bring Mortenson to Olympia, see other stories on this blog at

Above: Mortenson with Olympia High School students Teasha Feldman and Kaycee Keegan today.