“What do kids in Pakistan feed their pets?”

The question, from a 4th grader at Westhaven Elementary School in Portsmouth, Virginia, stumped me.  I was at Westhaven last month to congratulate the students for their fundraising efforts earlier in the year. Efforts that lead to scholarships to send 15 students in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to school for the year. I showed the students at Westhaven photos of CAI schools and our students; and played a video of a typical day in the life of a 4th grader in Afghanistan.

The students at Westhaven were happy, energetic kids with an unending list of questions for me. They asked about the languages that our students speak in school, the chores they do at home, and what they feed their pets. (I have since asked my colleagues overseas, and they reported back that families in the regions where we work typically feed their pets table scraps or left-overs from their dinner.)

The students at Westhaven also shared with me three beautiful “Culture Quilts” made of paper squares that illustrate the unique aspects of their culture. The quilts serve as a colorful and important reminder that our differences – the things that make us unique and special – blend together to make our community richer. And most importantly, that our similarities far outweigh our differences.

Concern for Student Safety

The next day I visited another school in Portsmouth, I.C. Norcom High School, where the students had slightly more intense questions. They were curious about the safety of our students and asked insightful questions about security, politics, and oppression. Some questions were tough to answer, but the students were mature, thoughtful, and desperately wanted to better understand the issues surrounding life and education in Central Asia. I wish you could have interacted with them! Impressive is an understatement. With these students as our future leaders, I have reason to be very hopeful.

My trip continued north to Baltimore, Maryland, where I met with the Pennies for Peace Club at Eastern Technical High School to present them with the 2016 Peace Leader Award. Club Advisor Frank McGrath, a veteran math teacher, is a dedicated champion for equality and peace, and leads his club with thoughtful guidance – allowing them to form their own opinions about peace, justice and human rights.

The students that I met at Eastern Tech were controlled and had a grit about them that was unexpected, due to their age, yet reminded me of the determined students that we serve in Central Asia.

Pennies for Peace and cultural education

My last stop was at Cathedral Catholic High School (CCHS) in San Diego, California. Let me be clear… CCHS is not your typical high school. It looks like a college campus with beautiful grounds and perfectly maintained buildings. The students had an air of lighthearted joy that one might expect from Southern California “beach kids.” I was presenting the award to Ms. Christine LaPorte, a teacher who was new to CCHS, but who had been running Pennies for Peace campaigns for years at her former school. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how familiar the students at CCHS would be with Pennies for Peace. But CCHS has a long history of philanthropy – and the award assembly was “standing room only.” Over 130 students came to the assembly (on a Friday afternoon, no less!) to watch this new, yet very popular teacher receive the award.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. LaPorte talked about her “duty” to do what she can to promote justice and human rights. This sense of duty appears to be woven into her daily routine and it is obvious that she loves helping others and inspires her students and colleagues to do the same.

Meeting the students, teachers and community VIPs who attended these four events reminded me that I really do have the best job in the world.  Not only do I get to work for an organization that is changing the lives of children in need, but I also get to share with students in the U.S. that even the smallest things, like giving a penny, can have a real impact half a world away!

Alanna Brown

Program Manager, Pennies for Peace