In 1989, Jim Ziolkowski was an idealistic college graduate, groomed for a life in financial management and business. But like many graduates do before entering the "real" world, he took a backpacking trip. It was there, on the streets of Nepal in Asia, that the direction of his life changed.
Upon returning to the United States, Ziolkowski said he couldn't shake the inequality that he witnessed abroad. So, he set out to address the challenges of poverty and education faced by children in urban America, and in the poorest nations around the world. The result was a non-profit group called BuildOn.
The group views its service learning and school construction programs as a form of social activism that intends to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations.
Ziolkowski said he knew that he could make a difference in people's lives and their communities by focusing on schools.
"In developing countries, we build schools because we have seen the impact that education can have on breaking the cycle of extreme poverty," he said. "In the United States, we realized that there is not a need for infrastructure, so we don’t need to build schools, but if we could empower urban youth specifically kids from the toughest schools, from the most challenging neighborhoods to transform those neighborhoods through service and education, that would be the contribution to make. That is the partnership to develop to give them an opportunity to lead that change."
BuildOn's after school service programs can take many forms because teens are taught to identify the unique issues facing their own communities. From New York City to Detroit to San Francisco and many places in between, youth leaders have been building gardens, cleaning up the streets, feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly and tutoring children.
Last year, the group hit an extraordinary milestone: 1 million hours of service contributed by students in the U.S., and 500 schools built in developing countries worldwide.
Of course, Ziolkowski said he knows there is still so much to do.
"To this day, we are breaking ground on another new school every four days," he said.
Those who are interested can learn more about BuildOn at its website .