One American’s mission has led to the educational freedom of thousands – one child at a time.

By: Amy Siewert • Photography courtesy of Central Asia Institute

     At st glance, Greg Mortenson may look like your average American dad. He lives in a small Montana town with his family, where life can be quiet and unassuming.

     But the basement of his home is base camp for the Central Asia Institute (CAI), an extraordinary undertak-ing that began after an ill-fated climb up K2, the world’s second highest mountain located in northern Pakistan.

     In 1993, following the death of his younger sister, Mortenson set out to reach the summit in her honor. The climb was not meant to be for the American, who was forced to turn back defeated.

     What Mortenson was not aware of at the time, was the journey that he was about to begin.

     In his book, “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission o Promote Peace…One School at a Time” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, he tells the story that changed his life after his descent from K2.

     Upon getting separated from his guide and lost on the trail back to civilization, he wanders into a village where the Balti  people take him in as one of their own.

     Mortenson may have lost his way, but he began to traverse the uncharted territory of his soul.

     During his time recovering in the Korphe village, he is introduced to their culture and his life’s new purpose when he discovers 84 children weathering the harsh outdoor conditions while using sticks to scratch their daily lessons in the dirt. He learns the village is too poor to afford the $1 a day it would take to hire a teacher.

     The situation moves him to promise the village elder that he will build the community a school.

     It was a huge undertaking with no infrastructure in place to haul the building supplies to the desolate village. It’s a poor region and many religious extremists in the area hated Americans and were radically opposed to educating girls. The obstacles continued to mount, but Morten-son held to his vision and after many trials, he y reached the summit of his goal in 1996. A new bridge and school lay in the shadow of K2.

     That same year, he co-founded the Central Asia Institute that states the key to long-term success is self-sustainability.

     Mortenson may as well be the definition of self-sustainability in the dictionary.

    Amidst a backdrop of poverty, political unrest and vast uncertainty of sheer survival, one man from Montana has changed thousands of lives in Afghanistan, Pakistan and America with his promise to educate children. Because Mortenson’s efforts were strictly from the heart and without any ties to religion, he has managed to make friends and progress towards his goal in the center of the breeding ground for the Taliban. He has been a superb ambassador of good will, putting his own life in jeopardy time after time, to see that children in this isolated part of the world are taught with books and compassion, not bombs and hatred.

    This principle is utilized in each project as CAI encourages community participation in all phases of the planning, evaluation, and implementation that contributes to its ultimate success. The community matches the funds provided by Central Asia Institute by contributing equal amounts of labor and local resources. The institute also focuses heavily on the  education of girls — unheard of in this region be-fore — as they tend to stay in the community and help educate others continuing to benefit the society. Mortenson’s success did not come at an easy price. The unassuming man from Montana spent countless hours fundraising in the United States to make the dreams of the Pakistani children come true. Every mile he drove and every speech he has given has well been worth the price.

    By 2009, Mortensen and the CAI have opened over 90 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan and edu-cated more than 34,000 children, including 24,000 girls.

   His relentless passion is paying off. He has come a long way from selling ev-erything he owned and a $100 check from Tom Brokaw in an effort to save for the st school.

    Mortenson may have been lost coming down from the mountain, but he chose a path that led to his freedom with thousands in tow.

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