The first plastic container of pennies was so full, it cracked open on the way to the bank.

The students at Al-Amal School in Fridley collected more than 18,496 pennies to send to schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan through the Pennies for Peace program. And that was just the first week.

"I don't have any pennies left," said 10-year-old Jaffer Muhawesh, who is trying to figure out how to gather more pennies by the end of March. "The first week I brought 10 dollars."

While many schools hold penny drives for charity, the Al-Amal effort carries special meaning for many of the students, especially those whose parents are originally from Pakistan.

Both of Ayesha Khan's parents are from Pakistan and every year she visits family who live there. While the fourth-grader said she doesn't know a lot about the schools in Pakistan, she thinks the students want the same thing as she does: the chance to learn.

"We want to help them get a better school," she said. "[My dad] is happy we're helping them."

Al-Amal parent Safiya Balioglu had the idea after she read the book "Three Cups of Tea" by Minnesota native Greg Mortenson. Through his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson works to build schools and provide supplies and educational opportunities in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"It's nice if you can spark the humanitarian side in a child," Balioglu said.

Al-Amal Vice Principal Janice Aziz said the drive has affected all of the children, not just the ones who have family in Pakistan. More than 30 languages are spoken in the homes of the students, whose families come from all over the world.

"Even if you're talking about Pakistan or Afghanistan, it could be Somalia, Eritrea," Aziz said. "A lot of them still go back home, so they can envision what the schools are like."

Eight-year-old Adam Adan wants the school to collect a million pennies to pay for pencils, pens and crayons.

"Instead of sending one penny a year, it's better to donate them all together," he said.

The value of a penny is a lesson many of the students have learned, Aziz and Balioglu said.

"They don't really know what to do with them here," Balioglu said. "But now they know where their pennies go and that pennies can have a big impact on other people."

Many of the students want to continue their charitable giving even after the program ends in March. Muhawesh said he wants to donate to programs in other countries.

As for the little girl who visits Pakistan every year:

"I'm hoping next time she visits her home country maybe she'll ask about how school is for the kids in her family," Balioglu said. "Maybe when she visits, she will be more aware."

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628