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Greg Mortenson Retiring

Greg Mortenson, the 6-foot tall, soft-spoken co-founder of Central Asia Institute, has been a pioneer in women’s education for over two decades. His books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and catapulted an often-overlooked part of the world into the limelight. This enabled hundreds of thousands of children, many of them girls, to receive an education.

Though his passion for the organization’s mission remains as strong as ever, Mortenson announced he will retire from the institute and step down from its board of directors in early 2016.

“It is with mixed emotions – sadness to see one phase of my life come to an end, and excitement for all the future holds – that I tell you, I will be retiring from Central Asia Institute in January,” said Mortenson. “However, for me, the word ‘retire’ does not mean to fade away, but rather that I will have the time to engage and explore this amazing world even more.”

Although he will be transitioning into a new role, Mortenson will continue in his life-long pursuit to support girls’ education initiatives, and empower women and children the world over. In this spirit he will work with CAI as an international ‘statesman’, help CAI develop innovative overseas projects, and forge new relationships in the communities served by the charity.

Over the last 20 years, CAI has blossomed from a single school in the Karakorum Mountains to hundreds of schools and programs all over Central and South Asia. It has evolved from one man’s dream to a vast network of people united behind a cause. What’s more, CAI’s unique footprint has been that many of those schools and projects are in the last village, of the last valley, in some of the most isolated, underserved regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

“For an organization to survive long enough to have a twentieth anniversary is a huge accomplishment. But CAI has not only survived it has grown into a community. Today there are so amazing people, both here in the U.S. and abroad, who have come together to demand education for all,” Mortenson said.

But 20 years is not enough. CAI is not going to stop now. Jim Thaden, CAI executive director, had this to say about the organization’s future:

“Greg was the visionary for this whole operation. He started this movement in a place that most organizations would shy away from, and inspired people around the globe. But the projects CAI initiated and supported over the last two decades are just the beginning. There is so much work still to be done, and CAI has exciting plans for another 20-years’ worth of projects, programs, and game-changing, community-based initiatives.”

Over the course of the next few years CAI will focus on more than just setting up schools, which is perhaps what it is best known for, and will continue to promote a holistic approach to education. Plans include: enhancing access to education for nomads, refugees, pre-school-age children, and individuals with special needs; implementing and expanding teacher training courses; supporting women’s entrepreneurship; giving young women access to higher education by way of CAI’s scholarship program; and much more.

“CAI is a small, but critical part of the process to achieve global prosperity and peace. With 124 million children out of school today, the number of conflicts and refugees increasing daily, the situation is critical,” explained CAI Board Chair Steve Barrett. “We have a golden opportunity to act now, as the United Nations initiates a new fifteen-year Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) plan, of which universal education is a high priority. Universal education doesn’t just happen overnight. As Malala said, it starts with ‘one child, one pen, one teacher, and one book at a time,’ and that is what CAI does best.”

Even so, the fight for education is not the story of one organization, or one man or woman. It is the story of a mission and of communities. This is one of the many reasons that CAI has increasingly invested in its overseas partners. Having grown up and lived most of their lives not far from the villages they now serve, overseas project managers have their fingers on the pulse of regional life and can respond quickly and efficiently in the case of an emergency.

“The organization is now in a good place, with the assets, resources, and good people at home and abroad to move strongly into the future,” Greg wrote in CAI’s annual fall publication, Journey of Hope.

“As an organization, CAI has faced many challenges, but the work never stopped,” he added.

Over the course of its existence, CAI has overcome many challenges, the most prominent of which was a widely publicized controversy over details in Mortenson’s books and CAI operations. The allegations in 2011 caused donations to plummet.

Over the last four years, CAI has overhauled its operations with new board members and staff, shored-up procedures and personnel policies, and revamped its financial systems. This has resulted in CAI meeting and exceeding every reporting requirement presented, including those of the Montana Attorney General’s office, the nonprofit watchdog agency GuideStar, the Better Business Bureau, and the IRS.

With Mortenson’s transition into this new role, CAI will continue to evolve. However, staff commitment remains steadfast, and the organization will continue to promote the many diverse voices that have rallied behind the mission.

As he said, Mortenson’s voice will still be heard, as he does not intend to disappear into retirement. Instead, he plans to remain “a humble servant of humanity,” working on solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems – child slavery, dropout rates for schoolgirls who reach puberty, female illiteracy, violence against women, and early marriage. On a personal note, he is looking forward to having more time to write and will spend long-overdue, quality time with his family and friends.

“There is not enough paper in the world to adequately thank everyone I would like to thank, the thousands of generous and caring people who supported me and CAI over the years as we undertook this incredible journey together,” he said. “Since 1996 they have helped CAI bring education, literacy, and hope to hundreds of thousands of people. Their support has been the gift of a lifetime and profoundly impacted every boy, girl, woman, and man, we have served. It’s my sincerest wish that CAI will always have such generous support and that its mission will continue on into perpetuity with strength and love.”

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Read Greg’s letter announcing his retirement in the fall 2015 Journey of Hope.