Cindy Nofziger, a physical therapist for Seattle Public Schools, is a state winner of the Jefferson Award, the "Nobel Prize" of public service.

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It started with a plea from an old friend on the other side of the world, begging for help rebuilding a school that had been destroyed in a brutal civil war.

Seven years later, Schools for Salone has raised money to build 12 schools with a 13th in progress, two libraries and numerous water wells in war-torn villages across Sierra Leone.

This year, organization founder Cindy Nofziger, of Seattle, is being honored as one of five Washington state winners of the Jefferson Award, considered the “Nobel Prize” of public service. Residents can vote this week on their favorite local winner at, with the top vote-getter receiving entry to the national competition in June.

In some ways, Nofziger is an unlikely candidate for the award. A 54-year-old physical therapist for Seattle Public Schools, she did not set about to start a charity organization.

Instead, the cause found her during a 2004 visit to Sierra Leone, where she had completed a stint in the Peace Corps in the 1980s. Much had changed in the two decades between her visits, mostly because of the civil war. It was on that return trip that the friend, John Sesay, asked for help.

“Since then, it’s all been very organic,” said Nofziger, sitting in her wood-paneled kitchen, which still serves as headquarters of the $200,000-per-year organization. “More and more amazing people keep coming on to help.”

Those people include Peggy Garber, the group’s treasurer, and Megan Pedersen, its executive assistant. Both, like Nofziger, live in Seattle and spent time in Sierra Leone — Garber as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s and Pedersen as a college student studying abroad in 2008.

“The country just grabs you,” Garber said. “It really does.”

In some ways, the Schools for Salone team is a ragtag collection of Pacific Northwest ex-Peace Corps members and others with connections to the West African country.

But it is also a large nonprofit with a board that stretches across the country and around the world.

The group’s primary focus is raising money. It accepts donations, of course, but also holds elaborate dinner fundraisers; maintains partnerships with elementary schools around the U.S.; and sells calendars, T-shirts, bags and notecards (the notecards hold a special place because, besides being the original fundraising tool, they are based on drawings by Sierra Leoneans).

Schools for Salone then turns the proceeds over to the Masanga Children’s Fund, a local nonprofit that identifies villages in need of help and manages the project. Besides building the schools, donations also go toward classroom supplies, teacher training, student scholarships and a fund for repairs.

Nofziger, Garber and Pedersen are looking toward the future; this year, for the first time, they are accepting a small stipend for their work. Their hope is to expand the effort into a sustainable organization that can help others who need it.

“You think about these kids who have lost everything,” Nofziger said. “Education is something that nobody can ever take away from them.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or

On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.