Copper’s as good as gold with Pennies for Peace

Inspired by “Three Cups of Tea,” Jill Allison began a one-woman penny campaign. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Inspired by “Three Cups of Tea,” Jill Allison began a one-woman penny campaign.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Islander Jill Allison stages a local fund-raiser for Afghani, Pakistani students.

Jill Allison practices what she reads.

And Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” not only pulled Allison in – it has spurred her on.

“This book above all others really resonated with me,” she said. “I’m just in awe of what he’s done and is able to do, even in a post-9/11 world.”

This spring, Allison saw a notice announcing the inaugural book in the Bainbridge & Beyond Reads series.

“Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time” tells the story of how while descending Pakistan’s K2 after a failed attempt to reach the summit, a disoriented Mortenson stumbled into a northern Pakistani village that was too poor even to afford a school.

The villagers nursed him back to health, and when he left, he promised to return to build one.

Through personal sacrifice, force of will and $623 in pennies raised by a group of Wisconsin school children, Mortenson made good on his promise. His Central Asia Institute has since constructed 55 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a mission to counter terror through education.

Aside from the cause itself, what struck Allison hardest about the book was that a single person without powerful credentials or the backing of a large organization could make such a significant impact on the lives of so many people.

Allison, an avid reader who has always concerned herself with social justice, determined that she had to do something to aid Mortenson’s effort. She just wasn’t sure what.

She contacted Kathleen Thorne at the Bainbridge Arts and Humanities Council to find out if event sponsors were planning any type of fundraising to go along with Mortenson’s September visit to Bainbridge. Thorne said that plans were still evolving but to check back.

Then the night Allison finished the book, an idea struck for how to enlist Bainbridge Islanders in a global effort.

“Why don’t they do a pennies for peace drive?” she thought. “If someone can buy a $4.5 million home, why can’t they get rid of pennies?”

Pennies for Peace, an arm of the CAI that was inspired by those Wisconsin school children, had proved accessible to people from all economic strata. Aimed primarily at schools and students, the penny collection program hinges on the idea that a single penny, virtually worthless in the United States, can buy a pencil or a notebook in other parts of the world. Thus, pooling change in this smallest denomination could have a large impact.

Allison contacted Thorne again to pitch her idea of enlisting islanders to raise 1.2 million pennies, or $12,000 – the amount it cost Mortenson to build that first school – by the time Mortenson arrived on Sept. 26.

Thorne, who was aware of the overall Pennies for Peace effort, said she was thrilled when Allison called.

But she also told Allison honestly that because the mission of “peace” wasn’t closely aligned with the missions of most of the various Mortenson event sponsors – Eagle Harbor Book Co., BIAHC, the Bainbridge Public Library and the Bainbridge Island School District – she wasn’t sure how much organizational support they’d be able to provide.

Thorne gave Allison the blessing to proceed on her own, also offering publicity assistance via the BIAHC website and newsletter.

What ensued was a one-woman grass-roots effort that would surely do Mortenson proud. Allison sent email to everyone she knew, printed a flyer, set up a website and started collecting jars, one of which she took to her office in Seattle.

“I put a jar out at work, and by the end of the day I had to get a bigger jar,” she said.

Allison knows first-hand how long it takes to fill a jar of any size with pennies, and she’s also aware that given the debit-card-heavy commerce model, it’s less common for individuals to carry around loose copper.

So she’s hoping that as word gets out, people will start dredging up the big, full penny jars that they’ve kept on hand for ages but never done anything with, and then bring them to designated drop spots – which starting next week will include Eagle Harbor Book Co., the Living Room and Bay Hay & Feed, as well as this weekend’s Bainbridge Island Art Expo.

“Realistically, that’s where a chunk of the money is going to come from,” she said.

Allison also hopes that her email efforts, BIAHC-aided publicity and general word of mouth will result in penny shepherds besides herself taking jars and flyers to their workplaces. She also plans to approach the school district to try to get penny drives going in classrooms in September.

“The whole idea is to make it easy on people to get rid of their pennies,” she said.

Having dived into the fund-raising process head-first, Allison is now feeling her way through it, working hard and fast to get the remaining infrastructure in place. She’s seeking additional penny dump sites, scouting out a bank to set up the account with – preferably one with a coin-counting machine – and finalizing designs for her displays and flyers.

“This is snowballing,” Allison said. “I need to find some jars.”


Good cents

Look for Jill Allison’s Pennies for Peace drive jars Aug. 4-5 at the Bainbridge Island Art Expo and around town through Sept. 25. All proceeds go to Pennies for Peace ( For drop sites or to volunteer, check Allison’s website at, email or call (206) 240-3383.

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