Jim Ziolkowski, founder of buildOn and best-selling author, visits campus

Book Cover
Courtesy of buildOn Instagram
Ziolkowski’s best-selling novel about his experiences building schools in developing countries.


Last Tuesday in Mitchell Hall, Jim Ziolkowski, founder of the nonprofit organization buildOn, and the author of “Walk In Their Shoes,” shared the story of his organization’s founding with approximately 350 students and members of the university community.

The organization aims to better society through service and education, and has afterschool service programs in American high schools and builds schools abroad.

“Education is a fire that can never be put out,” Ziolkowski says. “Kids just want to light fires. They want to make change.”

Junior Elizabeth Burland founded a chapter of the organization on campus last fall and is now the chapter’s president. Burland brought buildOn to campus after interning for the organization this summer. The club has had success so far, and this summer a group of 14 students will be traveling to Nicaragua to build a school they helped fund, Burland says.

This winter, students in the Honors Program read Ziolkowski’s book as their common reader. Through working with the Honors Program, the department of Political Science and International Relations, the department of Women and Gender Studies and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Service Learning, Burland helped bring Ziolkowski to campus.

“The purpose of bringing Jim to campus was to show people a leader they can relate to,” Burland says. “The most important thing I hope people took from the event was the purpose of buildOn, as well as Jim’s story and how they can get involved.”

Among the audience members was Burland’s sister Helen, a freshman elementary education major. Helen will be traveling to Nicaragua this summer with the university’s buildOn chapter.

Helen was interested by the book’s idea of bringing education to another country, she says.

“It’s amazing,” Helen Burland says. “An ordinary person can make a difference.”

During his lecture, Ziolkowski described the challenges he faced while on a 27-day hike in the Himalayas. While on that hike, he encountered a village in Nepal that was celebrating the opening of a new school. He saw the hope and determination these people had, he says.

After seeing the joy of a school being built, he became interested in school systems in the United States, more specifically those affected by poverty and violence in the inner cities, Ziolkowski says. It was then that Ziolkowski quit his career in finance at GE capital to commit full time to the organization.

However, success did not come easy for Ziolkowski.

To start the program, Ziolkowski and his brother needed funding. The two were desperate for donations and were constantly being turned down, Ziolkowski says.

“I was being crushed and paralyzed by my own fear,” Ziolkowski says. “I was demoralized.”

Ziolkowski then had the idea to contact the Chief Financial Officer at GE Jim Parke after seeing him on the cover of a magazine. He was able to meet with him and apply for a grant.

Ziolkowski also planned to a gala in order to raise funds for the afterschool programs and the international school-builds he had committed to. Only 40 people had replied to go, and they needed at least 120 people to raise enough money.

On the night of the event, Ziolkowski lost count when he realized 400 people arrived, one of them being Jim Parke. That night, Ziolkowski was able to raise $17,000 and immediately following, GE contacted him and said they were willing to donate $25,000.

With the money raised, Jim and his brother Dave traveled to the Malawi village of Misomali in 1992 to build the organization’s first school. Just as they started the project, illness got in the way of their progress. Ziolkowski says both he and his brother almost died from malaria.

Dave was so ill he had to return to the United States while Ziolkowski went back to the village to keep working on the school.

“I’m walking back to the village and I realize, when these villagers get malaria, they die,” he says. “Why did I survive? Why do they die and I didn’t? And I realized it’s because of extreme poverty.”

After finishing building the school, Ziolkowski went back to the United States to focus on his other mission to help students at home. He then moved to Harlem to better understand the inner city kids he aimed to empower. In the United States, buildOn works with 74 schools in high-needs communities where students participate in community service in order to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education, he says.

“I’ve seen our kids serving meals at shelters where they themselves get their food,” he says.

Ziolkowski says buildOn has achieved great success over the past years. Ninety-five percent of the students that buildOn works with will go on to college, he says, and members have contributed to more than 1.2 millions hour of service to both domestic and international communities.

“Confront your fears if you have them,” Ziolkowski says. “Because if you do, you can light a fire.”

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