By Martin B. Cassidy

Hundreds of low income Connecticut high school students in Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwalk, are sidestepping poverty and illiteracy partly through learning to value their contributions in their own communities as well as around the world, Jim Ziolkowski, founder of the Stamford-based non-profit, buildOn, told school children last week.

In part the decision to stay on the straight and narrow is enabled by broader perspectives and resiliency they've acquired in buildOn's service programs close to home and internationally, Ziolkowski said.

"They look at the issues, challenges, the problems and decide what assets they can bring to bear," Ziolkowski said of the students. "¦We want to empower students throughout the world to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education."

Ziolkowski talked about the mission of buildOn, including an array of student volunteer programs in American cities and building schools in impoverished countries to a packed auditorium of school children from Stamford, New Canaan, and Norwalk last weekend at an annual cultural event at New Canaan Country School.

The second annual Culture and Collaboration Day drew students and parents of more than 200 students from Country School and Country School's Horizons Enrichment program, an afternoon cultural, academic, and athletic enrichment program for low income children in Stamford and Norwalk.

Since starting BuildOn 25 years ago, students have donated more than 1.4 million hours of service in their communities and overseas, Ziolkowski said.

"I encourage you to think about what you feel is important and think about what needs to change," Ziolkowski told the students. "Confront your fears because it is hard to make change. But take that first step and light that fire..."

Over the years the Build On program has raised money to send students to build 700 schools in Nicaragua, Malawi, Mali, Senegal and other economically poor countries.

Ziolkowski recounted his decision in 1991 to leave a position in corporate finance at General Electric after seeing the dearth of educational opportunities to be found for children in African countries and around the world.

In his first attempt to build a school in a village called Misolami in Malawi, Ziolkowski came within hours of dying of malaria, an experience which proved transformational and helped sustain his sense of mission over the following two decades.

After surviving malaria after being treated in one of the few hospitals in Malawi, Ziolkowski' resolve was shaken by what appeared then to be the futility of efforts to counter the impoverishment and disease so prevalent in the country, particularly from the twin scourges of malaria and AIDS.

"I was overwhelmed and asking what can I do in the face of that kind of poverty or in the face of malaria?" "I almost started to walk away¦," Ziolkowski said.

Ziolkowski's resolve to build that school was rekindled after witnessing the birth of an infant girl named Ruth in the remote village; and the earnest question of her father about whether Ziolkowski would follow through and finish the school despite setbacks.

"¦I thought to myself if we can get that school built maybe they can break that cycle of poverty through education and won't need people like us to come from the outside to help out," Ziolkowski said. "This guy would not stop until we got it done."

More than 20 years later, Ziolkowski went back and Ruth's father showed him the four additional schools that had been built, educating more than 1,000 children, more than half of them girls.

"Education is a fire that can never be put out," Ziolkowski said.

Domestically in cities like Oakland, Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Ziolkowski said students who live in more crime ridden areas are beating the odds through a spectrum of service they are taking upon themselves, from collecting thousands of pounds of food to feed the hungry, manning soup kitchens, or providing company to nursing home shut ins.

Ninety two percent of students who take part in volunteer programs end up graduating from college, Ziolkowski said.

The Horizons Student Enrichment Program, which is now run nationally, began in New Canaan 51 years ago by the headmaster of Country School George Stevens.

In the present, it has become a year-round program serving over 400 students from kindergarten through high school.

After Ziolkowski's speech, the attendees took part in multi-cultural games and crafts including making jump ropes and learning how to play chess and other from around the world that included crafts like winding jump ropes, and playing manicala, a checkers style game that is played across many cultures.

Listening to Ziolkowski's stories about how students overcome the challenges of poverty gave Desmond Pratt, a 12-year-old Country School student more perspective on his own life, he said.

"They overcame a lot of problems and kept going," Pratt said. "I thought it was interesting."