A Letter to Adam Braun: Founder, Pencils of Promise

First and foremost, I’m excited to announce that on Monday evening, my class achieved and then quickly surpassed our $25,000 fundraising goal. As you can imagine, the mood in class on Tuesday was celebratory to say the least! Throughout the day, students from 10A and other classes came up to celebrate our success. Upon walking into 6th period with 10A, we all erupted into a booming applause; it seems my students were tracking our progress every bit as closely as I was. I feel quite certain I wasn’t the only one to get goosebumps, and I chuckled when one of my students sitting in the front row yelled: “Let’s build another one!”

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Even though we have achieved our goal, we will continue pushing until our May 1st deadline, knowing that additional donations will go towards teacher trainings and student scholarships. That means that it’s not too late to donate!

As we now start researching Laos, Guatemala, and Ghana to decide where we want our school to be built, my attention has shifted towards a new goal: connecting with Adam Braun, Founder of Pencils of Promise, and the person who inspired this entire project. Last night, I sent him the below letter via e-mail in hopes that he might be willing to engage with my class directly. He’s an incredibly busy man, but I hope to hear back from him and work something out!


Dear Adam,

This letter is an invitation. It’s an invitation to visit Bulgaria and meet a miraculous group of students who have accomplished a feat that many thought impossible.

My name is Michael Pelehach. A few months ago, I read The Promise of a Pencil, and was moved by your story. Like you, I quit my comfortable job in corporate America in search of something more meaningful. That pursuit led me to Bulgaria, where I’m currently teaching English at a foreign language high school on a Fulbright Grant.

After reading your book and researching your organization, I was motivated to take action. I had been searching for a way to teach my students about empathy and empowerment. You see, Bulgarian society places almost no emphasis on volunteerism and many people here suffer from a sort of pessimism or “communist hangover” effect that often impedes progress. What looks to you or me like an opportunity looks to many Bulgarians like an insurmountable barrier. I wanted to challenge that notion.

Reading your book sparked an idea: What better way to teach my students that they were capable of achieving significant, positive change than by challenging them to accomplish something monumental like building a school?

Unbeknownst to my students, I spent the next couple months teaching lessons I knew would be crucial to our success. We studied education inadequacies to develop empathy for children around the world who lack the tools and resources needed to learn; we learned about crowdsourcing and how online communities can rally around shared goals to accomplish something big; we discussed the power of story-telling to generate interest and compassion for a cause; and finally, we looked at examples of individuals or small groups making a big difference.

Once these lessons sunk in, I showed my students this video, officially challenging them to raise $25,000 to build a school with Pencils of Promise. While I was supremely confident in my students’ abilities, I was nervous about how they would respond to the challenge. I was asking them to take a big leap of faith by going after something unheard of in Bulgaria. But my concern quickly vanished as twenty-six wide-eyed 10th graders stared back at me, their faces painted with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement. Several of us were dabbing wet eyes, touched by the emotional moment; the energy we all felt suggested that determination would overpower skepticism.

The next few months were exhilarating! We broke into four teams (fundraising, incentives, production, and marketing) to ensure every component of our project had the necessary level of attention. My students worked quickly to set up a personalized fundraising page, film a YouTube video to tell our story and raise awareness, plan local fundraising events, and create social media platforms.

Since launching our $25K in 25 School Days on March 30th, we’ve experienced extraordinary success! Media outlets in both Bulgaria and the United States picked up on our story, Bulgarian celebrities responded to my students’ requests for help by contributing money and spreading the word, the local community showed up en masse to our charity concert, all while donations steadily poured in from around the world.

Our campaign ends this Friday, May 1st, and I’m happy to report that we’ve raised $26,150 so far, breaking all sorts of rules and cultural norms along the way. As a teacher, I’m so proud of my students’ hard work, determination, compassion for others, and willingness to challenge the status quo; this truly is a extraordinary group of students.

I would like to formally invite you to visit our school—Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School—in Silistra, Bulgaria and meet the students who willed this project to happen. My apartment has a vacant guest room that you would be more than welcome to use during your stay; otherwise, there are several comfortable hotels in town. In addition to welcoming you to our school, I would be thrilled to show you around the country I have grown to love since moving here in August. I assure you it has an interesting history, fascinating culture, and wonderful people.

One thing that you and I share is a love of travel and adventure. The inspiration and exhilaration you found in India, Vietnam, and Guatemala, I found in Peru, China, and South Africa.  Like you, I have also found the relationships in my life that cross borders and cultures to be some of the most fulfilling; your Joel, Lanoy, Sam, and Cornelio, are my Dulia, Alison, Valentin, and Krasimir. People are what make travel worthwhile, and I’m eager to introduce you to the students, colleagues, neighbors, and friends who have made my time here in Bulgaria so special and made this project a reality.

I will be in Bulgaria until early July, and I encourage you to consider accepting this invitation. Not only will you certainly have an enriching experience, but you will also inspire youth to accomplish big things.

I look forward to your reply, and would love to discuss details about your potential visit.


Michael Pelehach

English Teacher – Silistra, Bulgaria

Best Day Ever?

I’ve been fortunate to have a tremendous amount of support here in Bulgaria–from an incredibly helpful Fulbright staff, to a teacher mentor determined to make me feel at home, to a hilarious neighbor who has adopted me as his own son, to eager and welcoming students, to a steady stream of visitors from the states, and to enthusiastic Fulbright peers happy to discuss the many highs and occasional low of our experiences. All in all, that’s helped me avoid feeling much in the way of homesickness. This past weekend was a bit of an exception. It marked my five year Duke reunion in Durham, and I was thousands of miles away.

My Gmail inbox filled up with Duke friends coordinating hotel and transportation arrangements. My Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with pictures from events on campus that I longed to be a part of (BEER PONG IN CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM…ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!). Groups of friends sent pictures that I should have been in. My jealousy only grew as I thought back to the Duke Community that I love so much.

Senior housemates minus me

Senior housemates minus me

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to stop feeling sorry for myself, because Tuesday night just might have been the best night ever. It was the night of my students’ charity concert and for many reasons, it’s a night I will never forget.

In the days and weeks leading up to the show, we broke a lot of rules. Typically when my school organizes an event like this, it is several weeks or even months in the making. Scripts are carefully written and edited, performers rehearse multiple times, marketing efforts start early, venues are booked well in advance, and directors, sound technicians, and lighting experts are contacted ahead of time.

We didn’t do any of that. Three of my students in 10A wrote our script the week before the show. Being well-rehearsed was out of the question as our set list wasn’t even finalized until a few days ago. We lucked into a director after our first choice refused to work with us because we were getting such a late start. The only reason we had lights was the individual efforts of one of my amazing ninth graders and her connections with a local theater. Our marketing effort could best be described as a last-minute scramble, and our first full rehearsal ended an hour before the show started. But when you set out to accomplish big things and give yourself an aggressive deadline ($25K in 25 school days), sometimes moving quickly is more important than being perfect…somehow my students figured out a way to do both!

I loved the idea that we were breaking the rules. Since arriving in Bulgaria, I’ve constantly heard “this is not possible” or “this is not the way.” We were trying to prove that, as the saying goes, when there’s a will, there’s a way. That also meant that a lot was on the line; and we were behind.

To be honest, when the curtains opened last night, I didn’t know what to expect. Things had been moving quickly in the days leading up to the show (they had to), and I wasn’t exactly sure how it would go. It wasn’t that I doubted my students or their abilities; I just knew how fast we had been moving!

But then, the next couple of hours happened…and they were truly magical. 10A and some key support partners had stepped up to the plate, and the result was brilliant. Unfortunately, our photographer and videographer need a few days to process content from the show, so I’m going to save the play-by-play for my next post. That being said, I want to share some of the highlights as they are moments that moved me greatly and that I will never forget.

In no particular order…

  • Going into the show, our hope was to raise 900 leva ($497). We were thrilled to exceed our goal, raising 967 leva (~$532), which was a huge success! Even more exciting for the campaign is that we had two donors willing to match our charity concert fundraising efforts. Becky and Roger Tuuk, extremely generous friends of my family from back when we lived in Michigan, posted a $500 match, and an anonymous donor opted to match the entire $532 amount. For those keeping score at home, that’s over $1,500 in one night!
  • A few minutes before the show started, a couple of ladies I had never met came up to me and presented me with a rose. “This is from the mothers of 10A,” they said. “Thank you for what you’re doing for our children.”
From the mothers of 10A

From the mothers of 10A

  • The performances of my students were fantastic. There are so many good stories here, and I promise to elaborate more once I have the photos and videos to do them a bit more justice. In the meantime, I included a few pictures below to whet your appetite. Suffice it to say that I’m unbelievably proud of all the performers and the amazing acts they put on.

Some youngsters joined us for the show, and they definitely stole the hearts of the audience. I was amazed by their voices and stage presence!

Desi dance group

Dancing group

Meli Mecho

Two of my stud musicians from 10A

One of my 8th graders KILLED IT with his beat boxing

One of my 8th graders KILLED IT with his beat boxing

  • As an additional motivator, I agreed to sing a karaoke song at the concert if we raised 300 leva on top of ticket sales in a box labelled “Embarrass Michael.” A few acts into the show, some of my students passed me a note letting me know that the box had 420 leva in it (later updated to 484 leva), and my fate was sealed in the form of Frozen’s “Let it Go.” In my three and a half minutes of fame, I made just about every mistake possible: I forgot the words, I was out of tune, and I’m pretty sure my voice cracked at least once in an ambitious pursuit of the high notes. Needless to say the crowd loved it. My students unexpectedly rushed on stage to sing and dance along and the song ended in a huge group hug. It felt magical in ways that I’m sure not even Elsa has experienced.
Let it go

The Elsa wig I made just before the show left something to be desired.

Let it go - support

Happy to have some support on stage!

Group hug

  • The concert ended with a big group singing of Michael Jackson’s “We are the World.” An extremely talented vocal group, Do Re Mi, got us started, but inevitably all the performers once again flocked to the stage to sing along. There was so much joy and energy in the room!
  • After the show, I joined about 10 of my students at the local pizza joint. As I devoured a large pizza (pre-show prep had caused me to skip a couple of meals), we celebrated the progress we’d made towards our fundraising goal and hypothesized where our school might one day be located and how the kids would benefit. It was fun to hear my students admit that when I first issued the challenge, they were excited, but didn’t believe that it was possible (that’s actually reason I wanted to do this project in the first place). With over $21K raised, it’s safe to say that nobody feels that way anymore!
  • Krassy rang my doorbell shortly before I left for the show, and gave me 4 leva–the price of two tickets–even though he and his wife Nadia could not attend. Shortly after that, he came back with dinner, knowing that I was busy preparing for the show and might not have time to eat. I’m going to miss that man so much.


  • Many of my teacher colleagues and the principal from Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School came out to support the cause! Regardless of whether they came to see me humiliated or to help build a school, I was extremely appreciative of their attendance. I was especially moved when the school’s chemistry teacher–a favorite of many students–thanked me for challenging our students to tackle something monumental and pursuing such a worthy cause.

In conclusion, despite feeling down about missing out on time with many of my best friends at my reunion, Tuesday night solidified that I was exactly where I was supposed to be this week.

Wooooooah, we’re halfway there!!

I was in a pretty good mood when I left school yesterday. That kind of good mood when you can’t help but smile even though nobody else is around. The warm sun encouraged me to shed my jacket and what I’m told are colorful blossoms (yup, still colorblind) were starting to bud on the trees in our schoolyard. Normally I would walk home on such a beautiful day, but I was eager to get home and out on my porch overlooking the Danube River as quickly as possible. Looking at the pictures below, can you blame me?


Afternoon view from my balcony


Sunset from my balcony

I made small talk with my taxi driver, never passing up on the opportunity to practice my Bulgarian. As if he sensed my good mood, he rolled down the windows, cranked up the music, and insisted on serenading me in Russian. He actually had a fantastic voice, and I expressed my frustration that I didn’t know the words to sing along. I think he was enjoying himself too because what is normally a three minute taxi ride took closer to ten as we crawled along at less than half the speed limit. My driver didn’t seem to care that cars were honking and passing him, as he slowed down even more every couple of blocks to wave at a friend.

While climbing the eight flights of stairs to my apartment, I reflected on the day. Today was special because it marked the halfway point of 10A’s fundraising campaign. The reason for my good mood was that we had already passed the halfway point of our $25,000 goal, and appeared right on track to raise the entire amount to build a school in partnership with Pencils of Promise. As I write this today, we have raised $14,571 with donations from 171 different contributors. I’ve been especially pleased with the number of Bulgarian contributions, as members of the community seem inspired by my students and supportive of our cause. Engaging the local community was one of my personal goals for this project, so watching that come to life has been especially rewarding.

In class today, we continued planning our big fundraising concert scheduled for next Tuesday, 4/21. This event is important because it will give my students the opportunity to use their talents to directly impact our campaign. It will include a combination of band performances, ballet, folk singing, rapping, and if we raise enough money, I’ve even offered to embarrass myself in front of the entire audience.

Tomorrow afternoon, we are holding a press conference at the school to give an update about our project, announce our concert, and answer questions from the media. I’ll give a brief overview of what we are aiming to accomplish while my students translate my words into Bulgarian. After that, I’m excited to watch my students in action as they’ll be the ones responding to questions from the dozen or so media outlets we have invited. We are hopeful that the press conference will both increase the attendance at Tuesday’s concert and add even more fuel to the media engine that’s been helping spread our cause here in Bulgaria. I’ve included a couple of examples below in case you want to practice your Bulgarian!

And finally…an exciting update! Starting NOW (11 a.m. EST on Thursday, 4/16), an anonymous donor will be matching the next $1,000 worth of donations. That means your donation will essentially double–$50 turns into $100! But don’t wait, because this opportunity will expire in exactly 48 hours!

A HUGE thank you to the many blog followers who have already contributed. Your support has played a big role in helping inspire a generation of Bulgarian youngsters that monumental change is possible if you work hard and have a vision. Not to mention…YOU ARE HELPING BUILD A SCHOOL FOR KIDS WHO DON’T HAVE ONE!

My students are making waves in Bulgaria!

My students are very tech savvy, and they’ve been putting their skills to good use. At this point, we’ve had about a half-dozen Bulgarian celebrities post our cause on Facebook, and some have also committed to making a donation. While I’m not very in tune with Bulgarian pop culture, it’s been fun to see my students’ excitement when they successfully reach a famous actor or musician. It feels like every morning, I wake up to a new message in our class Facebook group about another supporter. Enjoy some of their updates!

But before you do, check out our video and fundraising page!

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One of the ways I am measuring the success of this campaign is the level of engagement with our local community and with Bulgarians. Seeing such overwhelming support in our first week is fantastic, and I anticipate it will only grow as we continue to get more media attention.

Also, don’t forget to follow our progress on social media. These accounts are run by my students to keep you updated!

I’m also pleased that this project is stretching my students’ language skills. They are having to translate messages, post social media content in both English and Bulgarian, and thank our donors in English. In one extreme case, I even had a student write an English/Bulgarian rap about building a school. This is his first foray into rapping, but I’m extremely proud of his valiant efforts to help spread our cause. He turned this project from an idea to a complete song and music video in less than a week! You can watch his video here:

I’m also encouraged by the fact that the rest of our school is rallying behind our cause. I have students from other classes individually going out to fundraise. Some are selling artwork, others are volunteering to perform at our upcoming charity concert, and some are even offering their own pocket change. The rest of the school has also been quite engaged in sharing our story on social media. Once again, I feel very fortunate to have so many passionate, creative, and intelligent students at Peyo Yavorov Foreign Language High School in Silistra!

As a side note, I enjoyed watching Duke knock off Michigan State last night. In Bulgaria, tip-off was at 1 a.m., but I managed to mostly fight off sleep until the very end. When Duke extended the lead to what felt like safe double-digits, I might have nodded off for a minute or two. We’ll have a tough match against Wisconsin tomorrow night, but it’s great to see Duke back in another National Championship game!


Written yesterday, 3/31.

After almost 6 weeks of preparation, my class launched our campaign to raise $25,000 in 25 School Days (3/30 – 5/1) through the Pencils of Promise organization. Regardless of how much money we make (though I’m confident it will be BIG), watching my students come together to create something impactful and that we are proud of has been such a joy. In previous posts, I expressed my desire to teach my students that they have the capacity to make a mark on the world, and though we still have a long way to go in the campaign, I’m already starting to see signs of that happening. Each of our four working groups (Marketing, Production, Incentives, and Fundraising) can already boast a long list of accomplishments and optimism is high. A more specific example came in the form of a Facebook message from Mariella that was like music to my ears (notice her flawless English).

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Mission Accomplished!

When I walked into class today–day two of our campaign–students were already gathering around the computer to pull up our fundraising page. The borderline obsessive page refreshers were eager to show their classmates the most recent couple of donations that had come in that morning. I smiled contentedly as they quickly decided who would respond with a punctual “thank you” post. Before the bell had rung to indicate the start of class, our generous donors had already been thanked. If you haven’t already, you can check out our fundraising page and YouTube video here: https://fundraise.pencilsofpromise.org/buildthemaschool

As I write this, our fundraising balance reads $3,272 which represents 13% of our goal! While we’ve jumped out to a quick start, the students are far from sitting back on their heels and getting comfortable.

Day 2 Campaign Selfie!

Day 2 Campaign Selfie!

  • Our fundraising team is planning local events including a talent show and potentially a pie booth. This will be incredibly important as we aim to engage the local community! We have also had a couple of donors match local fundraising efforts. Let me know if you’d be interested in joining that group!
  • A member of our production team has recorded a Bulgarian/English rap video about the importance of education and is working on editing the video. I’m so excited to see the final product and share it with those of you following our story.
  • The incentives team just completed a “donation thermometer” to hang in front of our school so that everyone is aware of the progress we are making. They are also making handwritten Thank You cards for local donors.
Build them a School Thermometer!

Thermometer to share our progress! Excited about the $2,907 at the time we snapped the photo!

  • And last but not least, the marketing team is posting blog updates on our fundraising page, contacting local media outlets, and helping us tell the story through social media (Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; entering your e-mail when you make a donation will also alert you to my class’s blog updates). I also just found out that a representative from bTV, a national news outlet in Bulgaria will be coming to our class tomorrow to do a story on our project. Last but not least, Adam Braun–founder of Pencils of Promise–has now acknowledged our specific campaign twice! That’s caused lots of excitement in class!
Recognition from PoP Founder Adam Braun

Recognition from PoP Founder Adam Braun

As much fun as I’m having being a part of this campaign, it’s unfortunate that I’ll likely end up in jail afterwards for not filing my taxes. Speaking of which…I’m outta here! But before I go, here’s something to leave you with. We watched this video in class and discussed the meaning of the word “promise” as more than just a commitment, but as a an indication of future excellence…something that we all possess.

**Note: If you are interested in making a larger donation ($500 or greater) to this campaign, please send me an e-mail at michael.j.pelehach@gmail.com to talk about matching opportunities**