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Nov 27th
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Pottery for Peace

AE_BonnieSteveLocal artists auction teacups to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Don’t underestimate the power of the tea party—it could start a revolution. Bonnie and Steven Barisof, Santa Cruz potters with more than 70 years of combined experience, understand this. Spurred on by the power of another little everyday thing, the written word, the Barisofs are spearheading a teacup party in town to raise awareness and funds for education in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It all started just over a year ago in an unlikely place—a neighborhood book club. That was how Bonnie, a mild-mannered mother who confesses she’s actually “not much of a reader,” was introduced to “Three Cups of Tea” and the now-famous story of Greg Mortenson: After the Montana mountain climber’s failed attempt at K2 in 1993, he ultimately forged a friendship with the local villagers and began building schools with an emphasis on teaching girls in that remote part of the world. He has since established more than 100 schools.

“Three Cups of Tea” and Mortenson’s recent sequel, “Stones into Schools,” relate how educating girls in the war-torn area means more educated wives and mothers, which creates a noticeable trend of smaller families, healthier children, and greater community awareness. And as far as international relations go, a son will less likely join the Taliban if his mother doesn’t give him permission. A mother is less likely to give him permission if she’s educated.

The Pentagon estimates that it costs $1 million to keep one U.S. soldier on the ground in Afghanistan for one year. According to Mortenson, that same amount of money can build 30 to 40 schools in the region and transform a generation of kids.

It may sound like a foreign cause too far from our beachfront radar, but raising funds to build schools where our troops are being sent has become a very local issue in Santa Cruz.


If we help [in Pakistan and Afghanistan], which doesn’t take huge sums of money, we won’t have to send all the money here into having our military over there. It’s going to help us faster this way than the other way around.” —bonnie barisof
After reading “Three Cups of Tea” Bonnie told her husband of 32 years to read it. “I’ve never read a book that’s moved me like that,” she says.

Steven remembers how Bonnie was immediately inspired to help Mortenson in some way: “She said to me, ‘I want to help this guy, he’s doing such important stuff. Cups—we make cups, we can make cups! We know other potters who make cups. We can have some sort of cup sale. We gotta do something to raise money.’ And that’s how it all started.”

The ‘it’ is an online auction at (built by Steven who doubles as a web designer) selling locally made teacups in sets of three, 2D art and jewelry. This year’s auction began on Jan. 25 and culminates in the second 3 Cups of Tea Santa Cruz fundraiser on Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Rio Theatre. Proceeds benefit Mortenson’s nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI).

The event will feature the former president of the CAI board, Julia Bergman, speaking and presenting a slideshow about the work of the CAI and the schools being built. Santa Cruz’s Lou Renner, an artist and international mountain guide who trains people to climb Mount Everest, will also speak about the K2 trek Mortenson attempted—the one he failed to accomplish but which triggered his immense humanitarian efforts that many predict will earn him a Nobel Peace Prize.

I chat with the Barisofs around the kitchen table where Bonnie first brainstormed ideas for a fundraising effort. I find myself welcomed into their artful and pottery-laden home by the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and, of course, a steeping pot of tea with a set of three homemade teacups glimmering with aquamarine accents neatly arranged for each of us.

As we share some orange blossom tea, I learn that while last year’s inaugural online auction and event at Gault Elementary School raised $9,500, with every item selling and bids coming in from as far away as New York and Paris, the Barisofs are hoping to approach twice that amount this time around. And the surrounding community is all for it.

Along with nearly 70 artists donating their work to the auction, five area schools are contributing to the cause by raising money on campus through “Pennies for Peace”—titled because each penny can purchase a pencil for a student abroad, opening the doors to literacy. Gault Elementary, Westlake Elementary, Branciforte Middle School, San Lorenzo Valley Elementary and Harbor High School are all hosting “Pennies for Peace,” and some students have gone so far as to craft teacups being auctioned.


“People want to help if you give them a way to participate and do something positive. And giving a set of teacups isn’t a hardship—people want to do it.” —bonnie barisof
Local government has even joined in. Mayor Mike Rotkin just issued a proclamation declaring the month of February 2010 “3 Cups of Tea Santa Cruz Month” in order to “encourage all citizens to promote peace through education.”

Still, it begs the question: Why all this effort for schools so far away when we have enough problems with our own educational system? Bonnie responded to that concern plenty of times, replying that “if we help [in Pakistan and Afghanistan], which doesn’t take huge sums of money, we won’t have to send all the money here into having our military over there. It’s going to help us faster this way than the other way around.”

She adds that when they started piecing together the whole 3 Cups of Tea Santa Cruz idea, we were still living in the Bush age; they were determined to do something that generated a sense of hope. “We wanted to show that there are wonderful things happening in the world that you never hear about,” Bonnie begins. “People want to help if you give them a way to participate and do something positive. And giving a set of teacups isn’t a hardship—people want to do it.”

Bonnie says that 3 Cups of Tea Santa Cruz, which started after her silent reading steamrolled into the clay community’s call for action, has given her “a new direction as a human being.”

All in all, the Barisofs, backed by a legion of 100 local donors, volunteers and sponsors, are giving a simple reminder that if you try to see the cup as half full, you might just make it overflow.

3 Cups of Tea Santa Cruz takes place at 5:30-9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. For more information or the online auction, go to

Photo Credit: Kelly V

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