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After Greg Mortenson's sister died in 1992, he vowed to climb the world's second-highest mountain in her honor. When he almost died climbing the Pakistan mountain known as K2, the people of a remote village there nursed him back to health.
Mortenson drank many cups of tea with the people of Pakistan, who believe the beverage is an important symbol of relationships. The saying goes: When you drink the first cup of tea with someone you're a stranger, with the second you're a friend and by the third cup you're family.
As Mortenson sat drinking tea, he watched children learning lessons with sticks and dirt rather than books and pencils. He promised once he regained his health he would come back and build them a school.
Since then, Mortenson has co-written a book called "Three Cups of Tea" and co-founded the nonprofit organization Central Asia Institute and the international service-learning program Pennies for Peace -- all with the goal of promoting peace through education in the remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As of 2009, Mortenson had either established or supported at least 131 schools in the two countries, according to the "Three Cups of Tea" Web site.
Now Beaufort County students are backing Mortenson's efforts. Beaufort High School, Beaufort Middle School, Lady's Island Elementary School and Hilton Head Island High School are all involved in projects -- creating artwork, writing poetry and raising money for schools in Central Asia.
"He's just this really cool guy doing a really cool thing for this planet," Hilton Head High art teacher Monique Dobbelaere said about Mortenson. "And we want to support him."
The Hilton Head school started the local trend last year when Dobbelaere introduced the idea to her students. The students created hair clips, key chains, bracelets, lanterns and greeting cards based on the "Three Cups of Tea" motto and then sold the items at ArtWare in Main Street Village on Hilton Head. Those sales combined with other fundraisers yielded more than $2,700 for Mortenson's group last year.
Because the program was so successful at the high school, Dobbelaere introduced the idea to other teachers in the county. And they jumped on board.
Beaufort Middle School is taking a unique approach by painting ikat-inspired designs on tiles that will be used to enhance their own school's courtyard. Ikat is an Asian artform that involves individually dying strands of silk and then weaving them into vibrant patterns. Every student at the school will paint a tile. Art teacher Nonie Reese hopes to have the project completed by June 3 for a dedication and unveiling.
Although the courtyard project won't raise money for Mortenson's organization, it will allow the children an opportunity to express their creativity and learn about another culture while at the same time sprucing up the school grounds.
"It's wonderful -- the angle that they have," Dobbelaere said about Beaufort Middle's approach. "It just kind of took on a life of its own."
To do their part financially, the middle school will host a silent art auction open to the public at 3 p.m. June 3 in the school's multipurpose room. Bids will close at 6 p.m. Reese's students have created pottery, two-dimensional artwork and note cards that will be sold at the auction. All proceeds will go to the Central Asia Institute.
Yet another angle on the "Three Cups" project can be seen by students of Lady's Island Elementary School, who are incorporating music into their fundraising efforts. Kindergartners and first-graders will sing songs about peace for guests at their next Kid's Club meeting 5:30 p.m. May 4. The event is open to the public. The children will create peace beads, necklaces and bracelets to be sold at the event.
Lady's Island art teacher Stephanie Riedmayer wants her students to know how important schools are and how fortunate they are to have a school to attend.
"I think it's important that students know about community service projects ... so the children know that we're not just a 'give it to me' society," Riedmayer said. "They get a lot of gifts, but we need to give gifts to people that are not as fortunate."
Beaufort High art teacher Scott Gordon's advanced painting class created "Three Cups"-inspired paintings that will be made into greeting cards and sold at local galleries, stores and boutiques.
Beaufort High junior Marian Hohenwarter painted a colorful ikat design based on the theme of "Three Cups."
"I learned how cultures differ so greatly in all different areas and that it's important to understand those cultures," Hohenwarter said. "It's great to learn about how people feel about each other and relationships and friendships all across the world."