A conversation in a Crested Butte bookstore led Mike Johnson on a journey that easily could have come from one of the books on the shelves.
Johnson was looking over Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Older Relin; a #1 New York Times bestseller about Mortenson's mission to build schools in the Middle East. A woman in the store suggested that Johnson meet "a sister of a friend who builds schools in Afghanistan."
Johnson, a petroleum geologist "in his past life" who has traveled to over 60 countries, took the advice. He met Julie Bolz, a social justice advocate and human rights lawyer.
In just over a year after the conversation in the bookstore, through various projects at local schools and some very generous local donors a girl's school was constructed in Northern Afghanistan; one educates 1,500 and is now the sister school of the Crested Butte Community School.
It cost around $150,000 to construct.
In October, Johnson, Kelly Jo Clark, and Bill and Carol Kastning - who all live in Crested Butte - spent two weeks in Afghanistan. There they met with government officials, took part in the dedication ceremony for the school, and became accustomed to local traditions. A couple examples: women who are covered from head to toe and students who stand at attention when they would walk into the room.
"The students were in awe of why we were there," Carol Kastning shared. She is an elementary counselor at the Crested Butte Community School, who helped coordinate fundraising and a "world citizenship week" at the school.
The group was proud of their efforts, but the trip made them painfully aware of the severity of the need in the war torn country.
Bill Kastning, who teaches third grade at Gunnison Community School, described one situation where students were huddled together taking class inside a tent. “It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen,” he said.
“You should see it in winter,” when the students are still studying in the same open tent, wearing the same sandals and short sleeve shirts, Bolz replied.
All members of the group were impressed by the hunger for education that the Afghans have. However, with the violence that takes place in the country, this opportunity is not equal for all citizens in Afghanistan.
The region that the group was in was the safest, though the Taliban is still active in the area. Still they all felt out of harm's way. "We didn't feel afraid," Carol Kastning shared.
Northern Afghanistan is known to be the most progressive area in the country; one that Bill Kastning called "a place in the crossroads between medieval times and the 21st century." One example of this he offered with this setting: an old farmer plowing a field with a mule, his mud-bricked house in the background… and a satellite dish on the side of the house.
He also said that the country was exploding with development, a new construction project on every block. "This is a country trying to rebuild itself," he explained.
With such a big project under their belts and a journey to Afghanistan completed, does this group feel like their efforts are done? Not at all. Continued involvement is an important element of this project. Talks are already underway for a sister school partnership with the Gunnison Community School and another school in Afghanistan. The group also hopes to increase internet communication between students in the Gunnison Valley and Afghanistan.
With their previous efforts in such a short time to speak for themselves more success seems inevitable. And, who knows? Perhaps one day someone will be picking up a book telling their story.
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