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Giving peace a big chance

School’s book project has worldwide reach

By Dan O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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GROTON — When the Bookmakers and Dreamers Club at Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School finishes its first book, you won’t find it at Barnes & Noble, or any other bookstore for that matter.

At 12 feet long and 10 feet wide, one page takes up a big chunk of a classroom. And with 1,000 pages at that size, their project is in the running for the Guinness World Record as the largest book.

Students behind the “Big Book: Pages for Peace’’ project have a message even larger than the world record: Peace can be achieved.

They are hoping to prove it one page at a time.

“This is the most rewarding thing that’s ever happened to me,’’ said Betsy Sawyer, the teacher who started the project on a whim in late 2004. “I’ll never forget these kids.’’

For the past six years, students have written letters to people around the world asking three questions: What is world peace? Will there ever be world peace? Where would you like to see the world in 20 years?

The students have received 1,300 replies, including letters from the Dalai Lama, former South African president Nelson Mandela, poet Maya Angelou, professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, former president Jimmy Carter, and the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Their thoughts are being printed in the book, along with messages from the students about the meaning of peace.

“Violence inevitably leads to more violence,’’ the Dalai Lama wrote to the students. “Today, more and more people are realizing the proper way of resolving differences is through dialogue, compromise and discussion. . . This is an encouraging and positive sign.’’

Sawyer called the letter from the Tibetan spiritual leader “amazing.’’

The project began with eight students as part of an after-school writing club, and six-plus years later has more than 150 participants. It started when students were looking at a Guinness entry on the smallest book in the world, which had to be viewed through a magnifying glass. Inspired, the students decided to create the world’s largest book. Not knowing what she was getting into, Sawyer agreed.

“I figured after a couple of weeks they’d forget about it,’’ she said. “But they wouldn’t let it go.’’

Still coming to terms with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which included among its victims three Groton residents, Peter and Sue Hanson and their 2-year-old daughter, Christine, aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the students decided their book would be about war and peace.

They work on the project after school every Monday. The club includes the eight students who started it in 2004, now juniors in high school.

“I just wanted a writing club,’’ Sawyer said. “To see what it’s grown into — I don’t think anybody really understands the magnitude.’’

Among the accolades it has received, Pages for Peace was recognized with an award by the Peace Abbey in Sherborn last year.

Sawyer said $300,000 in cash and services have been donated to the project, which is officially registered as a nonprofit organization. The group is hoping to raise another $35,000 to get the book printed before the original club members graduate from high school next year.

The project has enhanced not just the students’ skills in writing, but in math and science as they figured out the logistics of putting together such a huge book.

Engineering majors at the University of Massachusetts Lowell spent four years developing a robotic arm to turn the pages. A company specializing in large-scale printing projects, EFI Inc. in Meredith, N.H., donated several thousands of dollars worth of ink, according to Sawyer.

When the students took a field trip to the UniGraphic Inc. facility in Woburn, Sawyer said, it took six workers 20 minutes to print just one page.

“It’s the most worthy project going in the school district right now,’’ said Groton-Dunstable School Committee member Berta Erickson. “Every aspect of learning has gone into this.’’

The project has captured the attention of a group of 9/11 first responders, who will make their third trip to Groton for the World Music for World Peace Festival, to be held on June 25 as a fund-raiser to help get the book printed.

The students developed a relationship with the first responders, most of whom are New York City firefighters, after visiting the United Nations for an international youth day in 2008.

On a side trip to the site of the former World Trade Center, the students had a chance encounter with a firefighter who was seriously injured on 9/11.

“He said that he got blown out of a glass door on the first building, and he had head injuries,’’ Sawyer said. “The kids crowded around him. Their mouths were open and they were in shock. They never knew what really happened.’’

The firefighter was one of several involved with the FealGood Foundation, started by John Feal, which advocates for reimbursement of the first responders’ medical bills.

Since learning of the Pages for Peace project, Feal has donated $8,000 to the students and is pledging to give more.

“This is real-world teaching. This is how I’d love to see education go in the future,’’ said Feal, a former construction worker who was injured removing rubble at the World Trade Center site.

Feal and a group of responders visited Groton twice last year — in April and again on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. They spoke to students at an assembly, and the town held a parade for them.

“We had macho firefighters crying like babies. Not because they were sad, but because they knew people around the country still cared,’’ Feal said.

The relationship has had an effect on the students, many of whom keep in touch with the responders through Facebook.

“When they came here on 9/11, it was unbelievable and emotional,’’ said Ben Chilcoat, 17. “They believe in our program so much.’’

“They genuinely care about us,’’ said Drew Gentile, 16.

In addition to the letters, some students have spoken via Skype with youths in war-torn Afghanistan.

“The kids we talked to, they were no different than us,’’ Gentile said.

“For me, it was cool to ask them their point of view on the US troops being there,’’ Chilcoat said.

The students chose to make their book 12 by 10 feet because in 2004 the largest book in the world was 9 by 8 feet. Last year, the Guinness organization awarded the world mark to a book measuring 13.7 by 12.3 feet with 346 pages in Hungary, according to the Guinness website.

While the Groton-Dunstable book will be shorter in length and width, it will have 1,000 pages, nearly three times more than the record-holder.

Sawyer said she has spoken with several museums in Boston about taking the book once it is finished.

For more information on the project and its June 25 fund-raiser, visit www.pagesforpeace.org.