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As recently as three years ago, the schoolhouse door was closed to most Afghanistan children -- especially girls -- by order of the repressive Taliban government.

But the fall of the fundamentalist regime after the U.S.-led invasion opened a different door for Buffalo area schoolgirls determined to help their counterparts half a world away.

On Wednesday, students from six private girls' schools and two suburban public high schools said they hope to complete a two-year, $30,000 campaign to build a school near Kabul by holding a car washes throughout the area this weekend.

Clotilde A. Dedecker, a Nardin Academy senior, started the Western New York Girls School Coalition in 2002 after hearing an Afghani activist talk about the desperate need for girls' schools in her homeland.

Nardin, Buffalo Seminary, Sacred Heart Academy, Mount Mercy Academy, Mount St. Mary's Academy and Villa Maria Academy signed on, and within a year those students raised $12,000 to build Zarghona Middle School for girls in Kandahar.

Recently, the group expanded to include Clarence and Orchard Park high schools, whose students also undertook educational initiatives in Afghanistan.

So far the combined organization, the Western New York Sister School Coalition, has raised roughly $125,000 to implement eight programs emphasizing "gender equity," including five school construction projects in Wardak Province. More than 5,500 students are expected to enroll in those schools by summer's end.

Education is the key to a better life, whether the student lives in the Middle East or United States, girls involved in the fund-raising efforts said at a news conference in Buffalo Seminary. They held up snapshots of Afghan girls seated in new classrooms.

People everywhere, "particularly young women, deserve the same opportunities that I receive from school," said Veronica Cuozo, a Buffalo Seminary senior who helped Dedecker start the private-school coalition.

Dedecker said she is "absolutely pleased" three years later to see more schools rising in Afghanistan. "Relieved, too, in terms of security," she added. "We're lucky nothing bad has happened."

Her efforts to assist Afghan children recently landed her on Teen People magazine's list of "20 teens who will change the world." She was whisked to New York for the magazine photo shoot and launch and was interviewed on the "Today" show and CNN.

Car washes will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at these Anderson's Frozen Custard locations: 6075 Main St., Williamsville; 2365 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst; 2235 Sheridan Drive, Town of Tonawanda; 3724 Union Road, Cheektowaga; and 3030 Union Road, Orchard Park.


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