By Elliot Welsh
The headline of this story should read "Homeless guy builds school in Pakistan — go figure." Recently students at Menlo-Atherton High School were treated to a rare celebrity appearance in the soon-to-be-demolished J building, thanks to Kepler's Books and librarian Diana Beers.
Standing before the packed house was not a ragged homeless person with a Starbucks cup in one hand but a man who is a hero to thousands of school children in Pakistan and a best-selling author.
Greg Mortenson, 49, is no longer homeless; in fact he can claim more homes around the world than most of us.
He was born in the United States but moved with his parents to Tanzania and began his rich life on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro at the tender age of 3 months.
There, his father, Irvin, established a hospital, the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, and his mother, Jerene, founded the Moshi International School.
He grew up in Africa and considers himself a native, although he was born in the U.S., in Minnesota in 1957. He moved back to Minnesota, where he started high school on a low note, as he was beat-up by his fellow classmate for considering himself an African.
Following high school, Mr. Mortenson immediately enlisted in the Army. The self-proclaimed pacifist was completely broke at the time and needed the GI bill for a little money.
It was during Greg's tour that his appreciation for the U.S. grew. His travels with the Army as a medic led him to areas of the world that seemed uninhabitable, which is what motivated him to abandon all material matters and help Third World countries rise from poverty. He then attended college and earned a degree in nursing — a career that would serve him and the people of Pakistan well.
Since he grew up on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, mountain climbing is second nature to him. He spent all of his money he earned as an emergency room nurse on mountain climbing while living out of his grandfather's old Buick; but for him this was a luxury.
It was while mountain climbing in Yosemite that he learned the horrific news of the death of his sister, Christa, from an epileptic seizure. After the heartbreaking news he decided to devote his studies to the cause and cure of epilepsy to honor her.
In his sister's memory, Greg decided to scale the world's second tallest mountain, K2 in the Himalayan range, and leave one of her necklaces at the peak. His attempt failed and he got lost on his descent, with only a backpack, a small amount of water, and a power bar to hold him off until he could find his way down the treacherous slopes.
He was rescued by a native mountain climbing guide who lived in a remote village called Korphe. After he was brought back to health by the villagers, the tables turned and he became the healer for them, giving the sick villagers his spare medicines that he had left in his backpack; he spent weeks tending the villagers.
Upon discovering that the village had no school or teacher for the children, Mr. Mortenson promised to build them a school to repay them for their kindness and to honor his sister.
It took him a couple of years to fulfill his promise to the village of Korphe, but he did build them a school (it was completed in 1996) and much more.
Since his near-death experience on K2 he has devoted himself to a humanitarian, and often dangerous, cause — building a total of 58 schools through his nonprofit organization, Central Asia Institute. These schools have become a safe haven of learning for over 24,000 children, 14,000 of whom are girls living in conservative Islamic areas where religious leaders forbid them from getting an education, according to the Central Asia Institute.
Greg Mortenson, who is the founder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute, is the ideal example of a person who is completely at peace with abandoning all of his worldly possessions in order to benefit people less fortunate than he is.
He now resides in Bozeman, Montana, with his two daughters and his wife Tara. He has abandoned his life of mountain climbing to devote time to his family, but he still makes trips to places in Pakistan to continue his life's work.
Mr. Mortenson is seen as a hero in the parts of Pakistan where he has built schools and brought education to children denied an education for thousands of years. Greg Mortenson has lived an incredibly remarkable life and will continue to help the less fortunate in the future.
Menlo-Atherton High School is honored to have such guest.
About the book
"Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time," by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Trade Paperback, 368 pages. $15. Penquin Books, 2007. Available at Kepler's in both trade paperback and hardcover ($25.95). No. 1 non-fiction paperback on Kepler's bestseller list for six weeks.