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Tampa Bay schools express disappointment after donating to Pennies for Peace

For months, students at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School dug in their pockets and solicited parents for spare change. The grade level with the most money at the end would win a dress-down day, but that's not why they did it.

It was the kids a world away, kids who needed them, that really got the Thurgood students donating.

"We all thought we were doing something good," seventh-grader Tarek Ziad said.

So did the students at the 20 or so Tampa Bay area schools — and hundreds of others nationwide — that raised money for Pennies for Peace, founded by Three Tea Cups author Greg Mortenson.

The goal: to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But a recent 60 Minutes investigation alleging that Mortenson lied about his experiences and mismanaged funds for the nonprofit has left the schools and students wondering whether their efforts were worth it.

"I think that's really disappointing because the guy had such a good thing going for him, helping out these people," Ziad said. "He had a really good reputation, and he just kind of ruined it."

Ziad wrote a story for the school's newspaper after the fundraising effort, extolling the nearly $500 in pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars that students raised for the organization.

Across the bay, Pennies for Peace never raised any flags.

Administrators at the private Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa review every charity that students sponsor, spokeswoman Heather Mackin said.

Students gave the nonprofit more than $1,000.

"They understand the importance of giving back," Mackin said. "They would be very disappointed if the money they raised was not given to those in need."

In both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, public school fundraising drives are regulated by school board rules, according to policy handbooks.

Pinellas encourages schools to support projects with educational missions. Hillsborough schools may raise money for approved organizations after the principal gives his or her approval.

Judi Dunlap, school director at the private Montessori by the Sea elementary school in St. Pete Beach, said Pennies for Peace is a popular charity for schools primarily because of Mortenson's compelling story.

In his book, Mortenson describes how a group of people from a northern Pakistani village cared for him after he was separated from a mountain climbing expedition in 1993. The locals took him to their village, where Mortenson wrote that he promised the children he would come back some day and build them a school.

The tale is the foundation for Mortenson's charity, which indeed has built schools in the Middle East but perhaps not as many as Mortenson has said, 60 Minutes reported.

"I stand by the information conveyed in my book," Mortenson wrote on the website of the Central Asia Institute, the nonprofit group he co-founded to promote education, especially for girls, in remote regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Dunlap said Mortenson is a frequent speaker at school seminars. In fact, he was recently at a Montessori-specific conference that Dunlap attended. She missed his speech to catch a plane but heard that people came away from it deeply motivated to help.

It never seemed like something schools should have investigated further, Dunlap said.

Students at her school collected hundreds of dollars for Pennies for Peace before teachers heard about the 60 Minutes findings.

"I don't think I'll share it with any of the children," Dunlap said. "I don't want them to feel cynical."

Times staff writer Sharon Wynne contributed to this report. Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Who donated

Some of the local schools that contributed:

• Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg; $1,162

• Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary in St. Petersburg; $1,606

• Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa; More than $1,000

• Starkey Elementary School in Largo; $643

• Mitchell University in Tampa; $535

• Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle in St. Petersburg; $499

• Bear Creek Elementary in St. Petersburg; $275

• Macfarlane Park Elementary Magnet School in Tampa; $250

• Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater; a couple hundred

• Montessori by the Sea in St. Pete Beach; In the $100s

• Seven Springs Elementary School in New Port Richey; $50

• Countryside Montessori Charter School in Land O' Lakes, Lincoln Elementary Magnet School in Plant City; Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa; Greco Middle School; Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa; Learning Express at Westchase; unknown amounts:

Information from Pennies for Peace, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties' school districts, individual schools

Tampa Bay schools express disappointment after donating to Pennies for Peace 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 11:04pm]

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