He's 15 and big into football and baseball, so typically it's books that revolve around sports that get Jeffrey Varnell turning pages.
"I'm not the reading type. But if I find something that interests me — something I like — then I'll read," he said. Some of his favorites are Heat by Mike Lupica, and John Feinstein's Cover-up: Mystery at the Super Bowl.
Add to that one more: the Young Reader's Edition of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Journey to Change the World . . . One Child at a Time, a book he was assigned in Lynda Ehrman's intensive reading class at Pasco High.
It's not about sports, but the adventurous story was a hit with Jeffrey, a freshman. It also inspired him to do something — to get others to join the author's international movement to collect and donate pennies to help educate children and promote peace in the Middle East.
Three Cups of Tea, co-authored by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, chronicles Mortenson's campaign to build schools and trust in the remote border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan with the idea that providing education to the poorest students would help deter their recruitment by extremists and promote peace.
Jeffrey said he was truly inspired by Mortenson, who, as the story goes, was descending in 1993 from a failed attempt to climb the mountain K2 in Pakistan when he wandered from his group. After days without food or water, he ended up in the impoverished village of Korphe. There, while being nursed back to health, Mortenson was struck by the sight of the village children writing their lessons with sticks in the sand. He made a promise to return and build them a school.
Since then, Mortenson has been true to his word, initially gaining the trust he sought over cups of tea shared with the locals. In 16 years he has worked to build and fund 61 schools throughout the region. Mortenson, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, is the founder of two nonprofit organizations, the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace, a service-learning program that has been conducted in about 3,000 schools since 1994, raising more than 100 million pennies.
"It was inspiring for me because he stood up for something," Jeffrey said.
And like Mortenson, Jeffrey was struck by images of children writing with sticks in the sand.
"It made be feel bad and it made me feel good," Jeffrey said. "It made me think about how I have a good education here, and how they don't have any education."
The book was well received by most, said Ehrman, who downloaded presentations and lesson plans from the service-learning program Web site.
"They got a little geography lesson as we followed the journeys of the author," she said of her class. "They learned the history of the area and why it was hard to build schools in those remote areas. They really had to start thinking about what was going on in the world, too. I told them, 'Look at the St. Pete Times. What's on the front page? You now know where those places are. You can talk with adults about what's going on in the world now because you have even more background knowledge.' "
And, perhaps, some learned that they could make a difference.
The idea that it could be done one penny at a time was a good one, Jeffrey thought, and so with the encouragement of his teacher and his parents, William and Carol Ann Varnow, he decided to get the ball rolling at Pasco High.
"A penny might seem like nothing to us, but it can buy a pencil there," Jeffrey said. "Two or three dollars can pay a teacher for one day."
Jeffrey scrounged around the house and in his parents' vehicles for loose change. His grandmother pitched in with a plastic container jammed with pennies. His mom put a collection can in her hairdressing salon. Students in all of Ehrman's intensive reading classes got into the act, as well as the school's Model U.N.
Last week, Ehrman and Jeffrey piled up the containers of coins and took them to the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union to be counted.
Grand total: $287.
That's a start, said Jeffrey, who was hoping to raise $600 — enough to pay a teacher's salary for one year.
That's a realistic goal, he figures, "though it would be cool to raise enough ($50,000) to build a school."
Students have pledged to raise at least $300, Ehrman said. "Now they're also talking about what we can do to help out in Haiti."