Celebrating Success and a Personal Message from Adam Braun

I was running a little late on Tuesday morning. Instead of my normal, relaxing routine sipping coffee and watching The Daily Show, I was scrambling to pack my things for school and get out the front door. While jamming my things in my backpack with one hand, I dialed Vasko–my favorite taxi driver who I call in a pinch–with the other.

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he said in Bulgarian.

Normally, I only bring a backpack or small bag to school, but today I was also lugging a big cardboard box and my weekend duffel bag. Today’s lesson with 10A was going to be a special one, but I needed some extra baggage to make it happen. These were the reasons for my frantic call to Vasko more so than the hot weather or the fact that I was running a bit late.

Before the end of the school year, I wanted to have another lesson with 10A to both reemphasize the lessons we had learned from our fundraising efforts and celebrate our success. We started the lesson by watching a short interview with Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, pausing after each key point to discuss.

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An attentive 10A

Next, I asked the question: “What did you learn from this project?” I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear students bring up things like “Empathy,” “Teamwork,” “Thinking big,” and “Believing in the impossible and in ourselves,” all without any prompting from me. Since this lesson, I have also had the tremendous pleasure of reading their essays detailing the personal growth they experienced during the project. I hope to get permission from them to share some of these essays, because they are incredibly moving, and indicate maturity and growth on multiple levels.

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Great list of lessons learned

After that, things got really fun. A couple days before, I had received an e-mail from Pencils of Promise unveiling the specific community where our school will be constructed. I hadn’t told the class yet because I wanted it to be a surprise. I was excited to learn that the $28,451 we raised would go towards building Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School in Ghana. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail I received that I shared with 10A:

“Kindergarten students [here] currently do not have a classroom of their own. The students attend classes under a tree and this makes the learning process very difficult. When the build is complete, there will be a 3 unit classroom that will replace the tree where the the kindergarten students currently learn. The community is friendly and the students are eager to learn. As a direct result of your support, Pencils of Promise now has the capacity to change the community and build a school for these students.”
Along with the e-mail were two pictures of the location where our school was to be built. It was exciting to see the actual setting for our school and the faces of the kids we would be helping.
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The future home of Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School

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The future home of Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School (2)

After a fun conversation speculating how life would change for these students once our school was built, it was time to share the contents of the bags I had brought to school. First of all, Brittany, our partner from Pencils of Promise, had generously sent a package with a pencil and bracelet for every student. Additionally, I gave every student a copy of The Promise of a Pencil each with a short message expressing how proud of them I was. This was the same book my grandparents gave me that inspired the entire project. The kids were all smiles as they came up one by one to receive their gifts!
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That’s a lot of books!

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Passing out the books

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Krisiyana already read my copy, but now she has one of her own!      

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Christian and Miriyana show off their new books

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Mariella receiving her book, pencil, and bracelet

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Raiya with her new book

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Vicky excited for a new read!

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Inna with her new book, pencil, and bracelet

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Deni reaches for her new book

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Koko will have to return my copy now that he has his own!

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Ivana is all smiles…per usual!

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Sesi with some new reading material

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Maria cheesin’

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Mecho checking out his new book

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Meli showing off The Promise of a Pencil

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Of course my partner in crime Kremena gets a book too!

Now with five minutes left in class, I had one last surprise up my sleeve. You might recall from a previous post that I wrote an e-mail to Adam Braun telling him more about my class and the amazing work they had done. Despite being incredibly busy, Adam took the time to send 10A a personalized video thanking my students for their fundraising efforts!

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The fact that Adam took the time to recognize our work demonstrates the type of leader he is, and is part of why I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I had every intention of filming my students’ reaction to the video, but I was caught up in the moment as much as the kids were. I managed to whip out the video camera partway through, and was able to catch a few moments of them taking in Adam’s message.

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10A Group shot!

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Showing off some PoP swag

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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!

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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.

Regards,

Michael Pelehach

English Teacher – Silistra, Bulgaria

LAUNCH DAY!

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.
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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**