buildOn: From New Canaan to Nicaragua
Published 5:40 pm, Wednesday, January 19, 2011
There are some after-school programs where a student's biggest accomplishment is finishing his homework before dinner. Then there's buildOn, a program that will not only help with homework, but may even allow for students to travel the world.
When Jim Ziolkowski set out to start buildOn back in 1991, he wanted to engage and empower students; particularly those in troubled urban areas, in an after-school program that would also give them a global perspective with school building projects abroad.
"The goal is hope," Ziolkowski said. "We want to enable kids to see what they have inside of them. That they really have the ability to affect change."
Ziolkowski himself realized the ability to affect change during a trip to Nepal back in 1990. He had seen a celebration taking place in a small village near the mountains. He realized the festivities were to commemorate the opening of a new school. That unshakable sense of hope and optimism he felt stayed with him long after he returned to States. At the time, he was working for GE Capital, but soon left his position to start buildOn.
Now buildOn has more than 118 after-school programs in the country and has built more than 377 schools in developing countries around the world.
"The first step is to ensure these kids are empowered here at home," Ziolkowski said. "A lot of these kids we are trying to help come from the most challenging neighborhoods in the country. We want to give them a sense of civic engagement and a responsibility to their community."
In order to really immerse himself in the cause, Ziolkowski continued traveling through developing countries for two-and-a-half years, living in villages and understanding all he could. In order to understand the inner city and urban problems kids face everyday in this country, he took up residence in Harlem for three years. Ziolkowski took those experiences and harnessed them to make buildOn a success.
And success certainly arrived. According to its website, 95 percent of all buildOn students have gone on to college. They have built schools in countries like Nicaragua, India, Malawi, Senegal, Brazil, Mali, Nepal and Haiti. Also, in one year alone, buildOn students combined for more than 133,231 hours of service to their local neighborhoods while also helping more than 276,516 elders, young children and people who are homeless and disabled.
New Canaan High School was involved with buildOn for a long time until recently. After the seniors of 2010 left, the school had a hard time recruiting members. Courtney Gallo, a New Canaan High School alumni and former buildOn member, fondly recalled her time in the program.
"I was involved in buildOn at NCHS for four years and was president of the club my sophomore through senior years of high school," she said "My older sister was a member and encouraged me to join as a freshman. Instantly, I became excited and fascinated with what buildOn was accomplishing across the world."
Gallo, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in political science and Spanish, currently works for a non-profit organization in New York that works to prevent, intervene and treat drug use in children. Even after graduating from college and having many other experiences, she still recalls her time at buildOn like it was yesterday.
"While in buildOn, I was able to go on a `Trek for Knowledge' to build a school in Nicaragua," Gallo said. "I traveled with a group of 14 other high school students from Connecticut and New York. We lived in a remote village with no electricity or running water and spent two weeks building the infrastructure and foundation for the schoolhouse."
It would seem that her trek to Nicaragua has continued to inspire her well after high school.
"It was an extraordinary experience that had a tremendous impact on my worldly perspective. BuildOn allowed me to feel a part of something larger in the world and taught me that I could make a true difference in people's lives," Gallo said.
In fact, that trip had such an impact on her that she is planning and coordinating an "Alumni Trek" to build a school in Malawi, Africa, this year.
"We are raising the $27,000 to build the schoolhouse and will travel there along with other buildOn alumni," she said.
Aside from the trips to other countries, Gallo also described a typical after-school meeting as very meaningful as well. Members volunteered at local charities and shelters, discussed fund-raising plans, and even read letters from local students abroad building schools. One particular volunteering experience stood out in Gallo's mind.
"Our club volunteered at the Gillespie Homeless Shelter in Westport on a monthly basis," she said. "All members would make a potluck dinner that we would serve to the shelter. In doing this, we were able to help serve people within our larger community as well."
With her treasured memories of the program, she was naturally very frustrated with the news that buildOn's New Canaan chapter could not stay afloat.
"I was disappointed to discover that the buildOn program no longer exists at New Canaan, as it was such a large and influential part of my high school experience," she said. "I would certainly be in favor of reinstatement of the club."
She spoke passionately about the program's impact on students and how it affects not only the community but their self confidence and awareness as well.
"BuildOn is an incredible program for the high school as it encourages civic and global engagement, develops leadership and team-building skills, and provides students with an avenue to discover something that is greater than themselves," she said. "I can honestly say I would not be as globally aware or conscious and certainly would not have been empowered to make a difference if it were not for buildOn."