About buildOn
buildOn has been working to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education for more than two decades. Domestically, an extensive network of youth service programs in under-resourced urban areas promotes community and civic engagement. Farther afield, these same students are building a new school every three days in the remotest areas of developing nations—bringing education and opportunity to the world’s poorest, and teaching American youth the value of education. More than 800,000 low-income American students have completed more than 1 million hours of service. Ninety-three percent of buildOn students go to college, and buildOn schools are educating 85,000 people every day.  www.buildon.org

About Jim Ziolkowski
“You have to confront your fears and you have to ask yourself: What am I willing to do to make a real difference in my community, my church, my country? I ask myself that every day.” Those are the words of Jim Ziolkowski, who in 1991 founded buildOn with a mission to “break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education.” Raised in a middle class family in middle America, Ziolkowski’s life view was built on a bedrock of strong moral character and laced with a deep vein of faith.

The middle, though, was not where Ziolkowski would be content to spend his life. At his core, he is a seeker, imbued with a strong sense of both adventure and wanderlust. He road tripped across America while on summer breaks from college. Winter semesters found him skiing in Colorado. When he graduated, he knew he wasn’t yet ready for the corporate position he’d been offered by GE, so he began traveling again: Europe, Australia, and eventually more exotic locales like India, Thailand, and Nepal. He yearned to “understand the world from the inside out,” he wrote in his book Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?.

In 1990, thinking he was ready to settle down, he took GE up on their offer, and moved to Stamford, Connecticut, to start in GE’s Financial Management Program. Fifteen months later he quit.

The corporate lifestyle was stultifying to Ziolkowski, who felt infected with what Albert Schweitzer called “a sleeping sickness of the soul.” He found he couldn’t let go of an idea that had first germinated when he had met a couple of British travelers who had financed a school in Nepal. So he and his brother Dave founded Building with Books in 1991. Their idea was to build schools on three continents and to involve American high school students by turning them on to service and making an impact in their own cities. GE dubbed his departure a sabbatical, fully expecting him to return.

Twenty-three years later, Building with Books is called buildOn, has a $13 million budget, and aims to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy through a two-pronged approach. Domestically, an extensive network of youth service programs in under-resourced urban areas promotes community and civic engagement. Farther afield, schools are built in the remotest areas of developing nations—bringing education, and opportunity, to the world’s poorest.

The journey from his days as a corporate wonk to his leadership of today’s robust buildOn was taken on a tightrope. The future was never assured. The dream remained alive thanks to tenacity and the utter faith Ziolkowski placed in his mission. He did not take the easy route. Soon after leaving the relative security of his world at GE, Ziolkowski made the very conscious decision to rent an apartment on one of Harlem’s worst corners, fearlessly immersing himself in a world he had heretofore only understood from the outside. “Unless I ate the same food, drank the same water, and toiled under the same hot sun beating down on bent backs, I was unworthy of support,” he wrote. “I had to walk in their shoes.” The understanding he gained from his years in Harlem informed buildOn’s ultimate structure as much as the lessons he learned working alongside remote villagers.

In the United States an average of more than 2,500 students are engaged every week in service in under-resourced neighborhoods in cities across the country: New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Stamford, Connecticut, and San Francisco. Over the years, 800,000 low-income students have completed well over one million hours of service. And in neighborhoods where dropout rates hover around 50-60%, 95% of students engaged in buildOn go on to college. Involvement in buildOn has also been shown to reduce truancy rates—by 60% among students involved in buildOn programming.

Rahni, a student at the Bronx’s Banana Kelly High School, explained that she didn’t fully understand community service before her involvement with buildOn: “I’d always heard about community service, but I thought it was like street cleaning and things associated with prison work gangs.”

buildOn is committed to working “deep” in each of the 62 schools with which they partner. Jason Hirschton, VP of West Coast Development for buildOn, made this analogy: “We want to be like the operating system on an iPhone instead of an app.” buildOn works primarily in schools that can host at least 150 regular student members. Those students are supported by two full-time buildOn staff members who work directly in the school at all times. The program touches virtually every student in each school, thanks to the myriad ways buildOn delivers their engagement curriculum:

  • Weekly program meetings after school where the focus is community service
  • Weekly ongoing service projects after school
  • Weekend and holiday service projects, held every Saturday and many holidays
  • Service-learning curriculum that is woven into the classes of those teachers interested in experiential education
  • School or grade-wise service days for three days out of each school year
  • International treks—the most engaged students are given an opportunity to help build schools in poor countries
  • Peer mentoring
  • A service and leadership program for the 30 most motivated students at each school

When asked, most of the 5,000 students currently involved with buildOn will likely admit that the idea of going on a trek was the bait that hooked them into the organization. They stay and become passionate members and advocates because of the strength of the program staff at the schools—they are a band of highly motivated youth development professionals who are committed to making a change in our nation’s schools. Their goal is to develop fully engaged young people who learn to think critically for themselves. The curriculum explores issues of local concern, important global issues (particularly in the countries where buildOn has a presence), and leadership development. To that end, students choose their own service projects and elect their own officers.

The types of service activities buildOn organizes are largely direct-service opportunities because Ziolkowski fully understands that face-to-face interaction is critical to creating the kinds of bonds that generate real change. “Painting murals or cleaning parks is valuable, but the most transformational aspect of what we do occurs when a student develops a relationship with an elder in a nursing home or a homeless woman in a shelter or a child who’s hungry,” he wrote in Walk in Their Shoes.

Indirect service opportunities like planting urban gardens provide another way to make a big local impact. And advocacy makes up the third component of the service model—buildOn students learn to study an issue from various angles and develop plans of action to address those concerns.

buildOn helps ensure continued program strength by conducting ongoing outcomes studies, both internal and external. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) track student engagement, service hours and their fundraising (the funds are used to construct schools). A 2009 study conducted by Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management concluded that buildOn’s US-based service learning program provided direct positive outcomes, from improved academic and civic engagement to improved communication, leadership, and feelings of hope about the participants’ futures. The study also found that those outcomes led to improved attendance and grades.

Every four days, buildOn breaks ground on a new school in a remote corner of the globe. By the end of 2013, they had built 611 schools in Nicaragua, Haiti, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, Nepal, and Burkina Faso. They build schools to create opportunity and hope where there is little—in a world where one in six cannot read or write. Eighty-five thousand children and adults attend a buildOn school every day. Still, the United Nations estimates there are 1 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to basic education. And yet providing access to that education around the globe is the easier mission of buildOn: “Running highly effective programs in American high schools was far more challenging than building schools abroad,” remarks Ziolkowski in his book.

The carefully thought-out international program helps ensure systemic change. buildOn will only build in partnership. That means first creating a covenant with the country’s Minister of Education to ensure the long-term viability of each school. Included in that covenant is the expectation that at least 50% of each school’s student body be female, providing for improved gender equity on a global scale.

On average, it takes 12-18 months to vet each new school site, which includes an engineering review of the structural integrity of the proposed building, a plan for long-term teaching staff, and the full participation of the local community in every aspect of the building phase. In fact, 40% of buildOn schools are built entirely by the local community (for a total of more than 1,000,000 hours of local labor). Each villager involved in buildOn is asked to sign a covenant. Unable to write, many sign with their thumbprint. buildOn maintains full-time staff in each country (there are about 40 international staff members), ensuring local project management. This becomes exceedingly important when and if local tensions should flare, as has occurred in Mali over the past few years (schools have continued to be built in Mail, despite the ongoing unrest).

The Americans who go on treks—whether they be buildOn students, corporate or family groups, or college service groups—are accompanied by two trek coordinators, one of whom is Wilderness/First Responder certified. Additionally, each group is assigned two translators, an emergency car driver, and is covered by a comprehensive medical insurance program. buildOn provides the local host family with all the materials they need to host their American guests—ensuring there is no hardship in serving as a host.

Ziolkowski’s passionate drive and zeal for his mission give full throttle to buildOn’s expansion. For the past few years, the organization has been experiencing a 20% annual growth rate, guided by a three-year rolling strategic plan. Though Ziolkowski never returned to GE from his “sabbatical,” the company has been one of buildOn’s biggest allies, providing office space and utilities to the 100-member staff across the country. And every member of GE’s Financial Management Program, where Ziolkowski worked for 15 short months, takes part in a trek as part of their management training.

At home, the past few years have been tough ones for Ziolkowski and his family. They have been dealing with the serious illness of his eldest son who has been struck by frequent seizures, following an infected mosquito bite. Jack’s health remains a source of great concern and fear for Ziolkowski.

In his book he writes about the “appalling silence of strangers.” Guided by his personal convictions and his deep, abiding faith, Ziolkowski is not willing to be silent, nor to suffer “starvation of the soul.” Instead, he writes, “We are all capable of lighting fires, or changing the world.” His focus on others can make his staff crazy—Ziolkowski famously prefers doing service projects with his students and going on treks to proselytizing about buildOn. But he is living his passion. Whether he’s working alongside villagers in Mali or students in Oakland, he knows this is where he’s meant to be, writing “I am simply wired for this work.”

[August 2014]

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