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North Bay teens lauded by Powell
Dawn Yun
The Chronicle

When a tall, distinguished man came up behind Kyleigh Kuhn and put his hand on her shoulder, she was momentarily startled -- and star-struck. The man was Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"He said, 'Am I in the right place?' " Kuhn recalled with a laugh. "I see him on TV all the time, and I was really honored to meet him. He cracked jokes. He was personable. I was relieved that there was a sense of humor."

Kuhn, 17, her brother, Tucker Kuhn, 19, and six other students from North Bay schools were in Washington on May 20 to be honored for the work they have done with Pennies for Peace -- Making Change Work, a nonprofit devoted to removing land mines in Afghanistan.

The charity was begun last year by Kuhn, her mother, Heidi Kuhn, and KGO- TV news anchor Cheryl Jennings. Heidi Kuhn is the director of Roots for Peace, a nonprofit in San Rafael that raises money for de-mining lands around the world.

Kyleigh Kuhn had been to the State Department once before with her mother but not to the Treaty Room. She said she was impressed by its history.

"When you walk in, the walls are lined with pictures of previous (secretaries of state) ," she said. "So it's neat to see all the different portraits. The room is a really cool teal color and it's in a colonial style. It's not like the rest of the State Department, which is modern. This is very regal, there's a strong tradition there."

She said Powell's time with them was tightly scheduled. He was introduced by an assistant, then Kuhn gave a five-minute presentation outlining Pennies for Peace's achievements, including raising $70,000 for de-mining in Afghanistan and for building soccer fields.

"He said he hoped that we didn't give them 7 million pennies in bulk," Kuhn said .

Kuhn also read a proclamation from San Rafael Mayor Albert Boros that thanked Powell for recognizing the work of Pennies for Peace. Then Kuhn and her mother presented Powell with a pair of silver cufflinks that have a shiny penny embedded in them.

"He laughed," Kuhn said. "He said they were to remind him of the value of a penny. He was surprised by the cufflinks and said he liked them a lot. His aides thought they were funny and cute, and they asked us for the story behind them so he could tell others about them when he wore them."

Powell posed for a photo with the youths and dropped pennies into a collection canister.

"He said it was his own donation," Kuhn said. "He said before he came he had met with President Bush. I wish he would have shared what he spoke with Bush about."

The other students honored were: Amir Maher of Terra Linda High School in San Rafael; Rebecca Maher of Gallinas School in San Rafael; Tori Ulrich of The Branson School in Ross; Elizabeth O'Malley and Kelly McGaw of San Domenico School in San Anselmo; and Shaylin Hoye of North Bay Christian Academy in Novato. The students were instrumental in raising significant funds for Pennies, said Heidi Kuhn. Also in attendance was Susan Brennan, assistant to the head of The Branson School.

Brennan said she was impressed with Powell. "I found him to be warm, receptive and approachable," she said. "He spoke from his heart. He was very open and giving. He was very engaging, and that was a nice surprise. He's dealing with so much and being busy with what's going on with the rest of the world. When I mentioned this to one of his assistants, he said, 'This is what he lives for.' It was really one of the most special days of my life."

For Ulrich, 18, a senior, the highlight of the trip was meeting Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States.

"That was my favorite part because he was able to say what it was like to live there," she said. "He said it was a great place to live before the war, and they're trying to get back to that. He said he was excited that we were helping them. He said it was a big change to have people from the United States helping them so students can walk from classroom to classroom without worrying about being blown up. It's not something we think about, the fact that we can walk to school without getting blown up."

The students also met with Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), who had heard about their efforts to raise money for Pennies for Peace.

"And she told us about how she was trying to get the United States to pass legislation to ban land mines," Ulrich said.

The students were later interviewed by Voice of America and asked what they wanted to say to the children of Afghanistan.

"I told them we worked so hard and that children in the United States really do care about them and will continue to care about them and will rally supporters for their well-being in Afghanistan," said Kuhn .

The $70,000, which was collected last fall primarily by children who placed donation canisters in schools and banks, was matched by an anonymous donor in Southern California.

Another Pennies for Peace drive is planned for the fall, Kuhn said. The charity is talking with UNICEF to help roll it out nationally and, in the future, internationally.

"I would like to be able to raise a million dollars," Kuhn said. "The United States made a promise to rebuild, and you can't put together the economy and infrastructure until the land mines are removed. You can't build on explosives.

"When we started this, I hoped to raise maybe $10,000," she said. "I couldn't have asked for more. Marin has really grabbed hold of this and supported it. I thank Marin."

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