It is difficult when a hero falls. Greg Mortenson seemed to embody every part of the hero definition. According to his story, he came upon a tiny Pakistani village by accident, adopted some of the local culture and customs and then his heart led him to take on the cause of building schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. He started Pennies for Peace and the movement encouraged schools like mine to raise funds to continue the cause of the poor in that region of Asia. His book Three Cups of Tea is an international best seller.
But it appears that Mortenson inflated his impact, fictionalized part of his story, and mismanaged funds on the way to stardom according to a 60 Minutes expose and a number of articles since.
How do we know that the millions of pennies collected by school children are being used appropriately?
We have to conclude that at best there has been mismanagement of funds and at worst there has been fraud. While it’s possible that the dollars themselves are in question, the values that Mortenson espoused are redeemable: putting other’s needs above one’s own and bringing a clear focus to the plight of poor children, especially girls and their need to be educated well. On Greg’s blog he refutes the negativity toward his work and criticizes the press as being simplistic in their analysis. Perhaps his problems have been sensationalized by the 60 Minutes report but regardless, I am unlikely to support our school’s involvement in Pennies for Peace anytime soon.
Let’s face it. The money raised by any one school does not approach the impact made by the lessons learned. In a world that appears increasingly self-centered, Mortenson’s message counteracts a “survival of the fittest” philosophy that goes far beyond a natural desire to reach our potential to a competition that pays little attention to who or what is affected.
I hope that Mortenson simply mishandled his company and was not dishonest. We still need heroes who can support their parents and teachers’ desire for children to grow up as caring, compassionate young men and women.