SALEM — When Greg Mortenson accepts the Salem Award at Salem High School on May 1, he'll be the 18th recipient of the honor, created in 1992 as the city commemorated the 300th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials.
The author of international best-sellers "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools," Mortenson fits nicely into the Salem Award's mission of feting an "individual or organization working to promote tolerance and end injustice."
Mortenson, who was nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after a failed attempt to climb Pakistan's K2 in 1993, now builds schools, especially for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan through the nonprofit he co-founded, the Central Asia Institute.
The Award Foundation moved this year's ceremony from the Peabody Essex Museum to Salem High School to accommodate the expected audience. Even so, tickets sold out in just six days.
Mortenson may be the award's most well-known recipient, which speaks to the stature the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice has attained over the past 18 years.
"I think that the very strong name and identity of Salem, Massachusetts, is a great asset when our committee first contacts a potential award nominee," said Brian Watson, a member of the foundation's search committee.
"When we say that we are from Salem, and we explain the award and its genesis as stemming from a desire to learn from the hysteria and paranoia of the Salem witch hunts, that explanation resonates with people."
But the committee is not just searching for stars.
"Some years, we'll choose someone well-known, deliberately, then choose an unsung hero the following year," Watson said.
Last year, for example, the committee honored the little-known Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who advocate for migrant workers in Florida. Two years before, they packed the auditorium at the Peabody Essex Museum when they gave the award to Lt. Commander Charles Swift and Neal Katyal, who won the Supreme Court case challenging military commissions set up to try detainees at Guantanamo.
Because potential award recipients are often considered years in advance, the search committee strives to look at current events and causes that fit the mission.
"We try to think in broad topics, such as slavery, education, globalization or international law," Watson said.
"We've had a tremendous track record gauging what's going to be on the horizon," said Peter LaChapelle, a member of the Salem Award committee since its inception, who maintains continuity along with another original board member, Jane Phillips. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Salem State College President Patricia Meservey serve as honorary co-chairs of the committee.
LaChapelle also noted the foundation follows the progress of previous winners and often invites them back to update its donors with lectures or receptions.
With the growth in stature has come new financial stability. In addition to paying for award recipients to travel here, the foundation makes a contribution to their cause — a contribution that has been able to grow over the years. The group also pays to preserve and maintain the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, off of Charter Street, which honors the innocent victims who died during the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. The memorial was unveiled in 1992 as part of the city's tercentenary commemoration.
The money is raised from private donations and, beginning this year, from a 25-cent surcharge on tickets to the city-owned Witch House, a tourist attraction connected to the witch trials.
The all-volunteer foundation has lofty goals, according to board member Meg Twohey, the chairwoman.
"Our objective is to continue to broaden awareness of the award and also continue to broaden support, not only in Salem but in Boston and around the region," she said.
The foundation also plans to work more closely with Salem schools to educate students about tolerance and social justice. In preparation for Mortenson's talk, committee members have been working with schoolchildren, reading a children's version of his book.
That makes the Salem High location fitting, Twohey said. Students from Salem Public Schools and The Phoenix School will present Mortenson with money collected from their Pennies for Peace campaign. And more than 80 Salem students will be in the audience.
"We want to include the children of Salem, too," she said. "One of our primary missions is to educate the public."