St. Louis on the Air
5:11 pm
Mon December 2, 2013

Community Improvement Organization Builds On Foundation Of Hope And Empowerment

A discussion with buildOn founder and CEO Jim Ziolkowski and co-author James Hirsch, who together wrote "A Walk In Their Shoes."

Less than three years after graduating college in 1989, Jim Ziolkowski quit his corporate finance job at GE and started buildOn, an organization dedicated to building schools in impoverished nations and after school programs in America's inner city schools.

He was motivated by the poverty he witnessed during a year-long backpacking trip he took around the world after college, and by a celebration he came upon in Nepal.  For two days straight, the people of the village celebrated the completed construction of a school for their children.

Jim Ziolkowski talks about the inspiration for beginning the buildOn foundation.

"I saw now, not just the desperation of extreme poverty, but the hope and the courage that surrounded education," said Ziolkowski of the celebration in Nepal. "And I think a seed was planted there. I finished this trip and made it back to the states, and I saw poverty in our own country in a much different way, especially in American inner cities -  seemingly intractable problems with gang violence and all sorts of different things happening, but still that same thread of hope and courage that I saw in Nepal. So I wanted to act on all those experiences, but I ended up chickening out and taking a job at GE."

Fifteen months later he quit his job and started buildOn with his younger brother. Their initial goal was to build schools in three different developing countries and begin community service programs at three different American inner city high schools. The plans were going well, but the finances were not.

"We couldn't raise a penny," said Ziolkowski. "People not only said no, but gave us a host of reasons why we would fail - four or five reasons sometimes why we were going to fail. And the demoralizing part was that they were all legitimate reasons."

Chief among those reasons were the youth and inexperience of Ziolkowski and his brother. But 20 years later, buildOn has built almost 600 schools in developing countries and has after school programs in 151 American schools. Students in those programs have a 95 percent graduation rate. That's according to the organization's website.

A new book written by Ziolkowski and co-authored by Clayton native James Hirsch tells the story of buildOn. It's titled A Walk in their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World? and echoes the theme of service that Ziolkowski built his foundation on.

"I've been a journalist and author for many years, and I tend not to believe things easily," said Hirsch. "And what Jim said he achieved, I just had a hard time believing. So I ended up going to the communities where Jim and his organization do their work, to Harlem and South Bronx and Detroit. And I went to Africa for a couple weeks. And I saw what he and his group do. And I was just so impressed by it, and that's how the book came about."

"It's made me a lot more hopeful. That what we consider to be intractable problems, namely poverty and low education, low expectations in the inner cities of our country and in villages around the world," added Hirsch. "Those problems are not intractable. They can be solved."

The primary component of buildOn after school programs in the U.S. is community service. In addition to volunteering in their own neighborhoods, students travel to the developing countries and help build schools. And the communities that receive schools help in the building and sign a covenant pledging to keep the school going and send girls to school in equal numbers to boys.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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