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In Central Asia, helping kids for peace

Imagine that you are climbing down the world's second-largest mountain, and suddenly you realize you are lost and alone. You have no water and only one protein bar. And you haven't taken a shower for three months!

That's what happened to Greg Mortenson.

At that moment, he began an adventure that changed his life -- and the lives of countless people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It all started when Mortenson decided to climb Pakistan's K2 mountain in 1993 to honor his sister Christa, who had died from epilepsy.

But the 28,251-foot-high mountain was tough. Five of 12 climbers in his expedition died on the way down. Mortenson never made it to the top, got lost in the Karakoram Mountains and stumbled into the Pakistani village of Korphe.

The people of the village were so poor that children used sticks to write out school lessons in the dirt. Their parents could not afford $1 a day for a full-time teacher.

The villagers saved his life. Over tea with village chief Haji Ali, Mortenson said, he learned many life lessons -- and this custom:

"Haji Ali told me, 'If you want to do business here, take three cups of tea. The first cup, you are a stranger. The second cup, a friend. The third cup, you become family.' "

Mortenson became very close to the villagers and wanted to repay their kindness.

He returned to the United States and raised money to build a school by telling Americans about Korphe. He got help from kids at Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wisconsin. They donated 62,380 pennies from their banks after he visited their school.

And that started Pennies for Peace, a program that teaches kids about giving to others (a practice known as philanthropy) and about cultures. It is now in many schools. (Learn more at www.penniesforpeace.org.)

"The kids learn that they can make a difference and that even a penny can help," Mortenson said.

Since 1996, Mortenson has built about 80 schools in poor and sometimes violent areas of Central Asian countries. His goal: to help bring peace, one school at a time.

"Education is the key to making the world a better place," he said. "Empowering people through education is the best way to fight terrorism."

Mortenson said he came to realize how important it is to educate girls. Why? Because, he said, girls use what they have learned to improve life in their home villages far more than boys do.

"Unless the girls are educated, the society won't change," he said.

Mortenson has endured a lot of hardship in his work.

He once was kidnapped and held for eight days by armed Afghan militants. He survived a battle between Afghan warlords by hiding under animal skins in a truck. And he spends half of each year away from his wife and two children.

Mortenson first told his story in a book called "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time," which became a best-seller.

Now he has publishing two new versions: a young reader's edition for kids age 8 and older, and a picture book for kids ages 4 to 8 titled "Listen to the Wind." All three tell about Mortenson's life.

He was born in Minnesota and grew up in the African country of Tanzania. There his dad founded a medical center and his mom started a school. He always liked to help people, and he became a nurse.

Then he found his way to Korphe -- and that, he says, is where he really found himself.