Don't ever underestimate the power of a retired school teacher - even if she is tiny and has cancer.

Inspired by the real-life lessons of Greg Mortenson, who dedicates his life to bringing peace through education in the remote, unstable corners of Afghanistan and Pakistan, retired first-grade teacher Marlene Beltramo was moved to do her part to help.

Known for her ability to coax, cajole, motivate and inspire the hearts and minds of thousands of Missoula County students, it came as no surprise that when Beltramo retired from a long teaching career, she continued to utilize her well-honed classroom skills for a different but equally ambitious calling.

In 2008, after hearing the Bozeman resident speak in Missoula and discuss his book, "Three Cups of Tea," Beltramo assembled a group of current and retired teachers.

She explained she wanted to help students in Missoula and surrounding areas learn about children's lives and the need for education in rural areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Widely respected for her wise and kind way - and her reputation for getting things done - Beltramo soon had a small but persistent legion of helpers. And soon that band of teachers had the Five Valleys chapter of Mortenson's Central Asia Institute up and running to support Mortenson's goal.

They reached out to more than 70 schools in western Montana, providing curriculums to teachers and supplying hundreds of copies of Mortenson's book.

And, one penny at a time collected by schoolchildren, Beltramo's vision amassed $50,140.32.

The money, all now donated to the Central Asia Institute, is enough to build, equip and staff a school for three years in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and to support the work of CAI and Mortenson.

***

Those who worked alongside Beltramo applaud the grass-roots effort and its tremendous result.

"I had no idea of the grit and determination of this lady," said Jane Duncan, one of the many people behind the Five Valleys CAI chapter. "She had the vision, the drive and the focus to make this happen.

"She might be quiet and small and she doesn't like publicity - but she likes results."

With her throat sore from the ravages of cancer, Beltramo gathered the fewest words possible Monday to express the magnitude of her mission.

Although it hurts for her to talk, Beltramo explained: "Peace starts at home, that is why this is important work."

Thrilled that western Montana has again stepped up to help support a great cause for peace, Beltramo said she rests easy knowing a school will be built in a faraway land by Montana children who have come to learn that education isn't something to be taken for granted.

And she's thrilled to know that their work has already sparked peaceful, good work.

Montanans won't likely ever see or tour the school they helped build in Afghanistan or Pakistan; nevertheless, those distant places will touch many lives here through Mortenson's books.

Five Valleys CAI will continue to make sure that western Montana schools have copies of "Three Cups of Tea" and Mortenson's "Listen to the Wind" for younger readers.

"I'm so excited to have those books in our schools," Beltramo said in a quiet but strong voice. "They may not bring in a lot of money, but they bring in a lot of ideas.

"Hopefully these books will go on year after year and create a big ripple effect."

While the success of Five Valleys CAI chapter is the work of many hands, Beltramo's driving force is what pulled it together and what led to her nomination for the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center's annual Peacemaker Award.

"To have taken the message of peace to 72 schools in a way that brought it vividly to life for young people here and will also make such a positive impact on the children of Afghanistan for years to come is indeed a masterpiece accomplishment," said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Peace Center.

"There are many people out there doing great things, and Marlene certainly deserves to be recognized in that group."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

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