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Building It Forward

With a new memoir, Jim Ziolkowski reflects on two decades of doing good for kids as founder and CEO of Stamford-based buildOn

In the mid-1990s, when Jim Ziolkowski was starting out, his home was an apartment with peeling walls in Harlem. Occasionally there was no heat or hot water. Drug dealers mobbed the sidewalks. Even police officers hassled him, assuming he was there to buy drugs.

One afternoon in June, on a visit to his old stomping grounds, Ziolkowski, the chief executive of buildOn, the Stamford-based nonprofit for underprivileged children in this country and abroad, found a whole new look. Fifteen blocks from where he once shivered through winter, a row of trendy restaurants with outdoor seating lined Lenox Avenue. In one of them, Corner Social, which occupies a storefront where aromatic oils were once sold, Ziolkowski relaxed in a booth with an arugula salad.

While Harlem has evolved, the same could be said of buildOn, which was cobbled together in 1991 on a shoestring $100,000 budget and at a handful of American schools, including Stamford High. Today the group, which operates with an $11 million budget, runs staffed programs in seventy-four schools and has constructed another 543 overseas, each one still holding classes today.

That his business has expanded like a balloon would presumably delight Ziolkowski, an avid backpacker who hatched the idea for his philanthropy after stumbling upon a two-day party for a new school in a Nepalese village. Other validation is on its way: A memoir, Walk In Their Shoes, scheduled for release this September, is bound to introduce the forty-seven-year-old Glenbrook resident, and his life’s work, to a whole new audience.                                                          

But in the self-effacing manner that he wears as comfortably as his open shirts with sleeves rolled up, Ziolkowski, who sounds more like a surfer than a high-powered philanthropic executive, could take his fame or leave it. “I can take almost no credit for any of it. It’s been such a collaborative effort,” he says, voice rising passionately as he jabs his right hand in the air for emphasis. “I don’t feel like I’ve led a charmed life at all.”

But then, he adds sheepishly, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Ziolkowski’s wanderlust, which has fueled his career, started early, but it wasn’t as if he was pushed from the nest. Born in Jackson, Michigan, a small city in the middle of the state, Ziolkowski was extremely close to his father, John, who owned a restaurant supply business, and his mother, Pat, who stayed at home to raise Jim and his four siblings.

Roman Catholic, the family was also notably religious. Before-meal prayers often evolved into discussions about God, according to Ziolkowski’s book, which is peppered with quotes from the New Testament. “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust,” from the Gospel of St. Mark, is a favorite. In person though, Ziolkowski seems more private about his spirituality.

Instead of spending winters at Michigan State, where he was a business major, Ziolkowski took off to ski in Colorado. Summers were for longer trips, like the time when his father and brother, Dave, piled into a GMC van and rambled through the Tetons, Black Hills and Yellowstone. “We were basically just following our noses,” Ziolkowski says.

After graduation in 1989, the global road beckoned, in an odyssey that included hitchhiking across Australia, trekking hills and taking bambbo rafts down jungle rivers in Thailand, and accompanying pilgrims to the Ganges River in India. It was also when, during a hike through a rain forest, he visited that Nepalese village, Kari Kola, ostensibly to grab a cup of tea and remove leeches from his legs. But the impoverished community was in the throes of a party, with 100 people dancing in the rain to celebrate the completion of a new school. Spending time there, “I saw the injustice of extreme poverty,” Ziolkowski says. “And that’s when the seed was planted.”

But the seed did not germinate right away. In 1990 he joined GE’s Financial Management Program in Stamford, a two-year boot camp for future executives. While learning the nuts and bolts of accounting, auditing and forecasting, Ziolkowski found it hard to reconcile the comfy Fairfield County lifestyle with the just-scraping-by existence he had just seen abroad, and so dropped out a few months shy of finishing the training.

By then, he had founded Building with Books, the original name of his nonprofit, whose first task was to encourage students at Stamford High, Mahopac (New York) High and Lumen Christi Catholic High in Ziolkowski’s hometown to volunteer at soup kitchens during their free time. Around then, he also helped build his first three schools in Bairro Liberdade, Brazil; Misomali, Malawi; and Hau Pur, Nepal. (It was then that he relocated to that coldwater flat in Harlem to be more in touch with the lives of poor students in his programs, even though he returned to Connecticut shortly after getting married.)

Looking back, it was a wonder Ziolkowski ever got Building with Books off the ground in the first place. “He didn’t have much of a track record,” says Jim Parke, the former chief financial officer of GE Capital, and one of Ziolkowski’s former bosses.

His business plan was straightforward enough: Get teens to improve their neighborhoods, and it will inspire them to come to the aid of children across the globe who are even worse off than themselves, though adults can tag along too. But Parke noted that the construction experience of a guy who wanted to put up multiple schools in Africa consisted of framing only a couple of homes in Colorado. He says he was also worried about Ziolkowski’s fundraising prowess, which can make or break a nonprofit. To that point, Ziolkowski’s main haul had been $17,000 from a pizza party he threw at the Stamford Center for the Arts. Still, Parke chipped in $25,000 and offered to match any funds from GE employees. “And we’re still doing that today,” says Parke, who joined buildOn’s board in 1991 and is still on it today.

While GE was the chief benefactor in the early days, and is still a large force—five of buildOn’s six offices, containing 150 employees, are based in unused GE space, including its Long Ridge Road headquarters—the backers of the company today are more diverse. Current corporate sponsors, which account for 35 percent of buildOn’s funding, include Deutsche Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Pitney Bowes, the Stamford mainstay. Individuals kick in 45 percent, officials say, and foundations contribute the other 20 percent.

In this country, buildOn targets schools where the dropout rate is high—in Fairfield County, that is mainly Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport—though a few years ago the organization tried to broaden its focus and bring more schools into the fold for a hefty total of 140. Several of those schools are in affluent towns, like New Canaan, which was part of an effort to drum up additional funds, board members say. It turned out to be a rare misstep. “We thought wealthy kids would write checks,” Parke admits, “and they did not.” But some of those schools now have volunteer chapters, Ziolkowski says.

The core mission, particularly with the primary schools abroad, essentially hasn’t changed. Erect four walls and a roof in remote areas where other charities like Habitat for Humanity usually don't have a presence, and then get out, Parke says. There’s also an effort made not to be too paternalistic, like, say, the European colonists who controlled many of these places centuries ago, he adds. “The last thing people in these countries need is for an American to tell them what to teach and how to teach it,” Parke says.

Similarly doubtful at first was John Myers, former president of GE Asset Management, and another longtime board member. But Ziolkowski’s charm won him over. “He’s relentless, he’s passionate, he’s extremely articulate and very well organized,” Myers says. “And he knows how to ask for help.”

That hat-in-hand act has found Ziolkowski at JPMorgan’s Manhattan headquarters giving rousing pitches over breakfast. The avid outdoorsman has also met with captains of industry like Ken Langone, the Home Depot cofounder, who persuaded Ziolkowski to lose the name Building with Books, thinking that it sounded too much like a library, Myers says. Plus, “some villagers would ask if we used real books to build our schools,” Ziolkowski writes in his book, which is co-authored by James S. Hirsch and published by Simon & Schuster. An advance copy was made available to Stamford magazine.

So, in 2008 the company was born again as buildOn to “more accurately reflect our mission,” Ziolkowski writes in his memoir. “We build on to communities; we build on to education; we build on to lives.”

One early summer morning, that mission was effortlessly taking shape at Central High School in Bridgeport, one of seven schools in the state that buildOn works with. At Central, a huge gate looms at the main driveway, which can swing shut and barricade the campus in case of a lockdown; recently, bomb threats and shootings have been a problem, people who work there say. And the dropout rate is high. In fact, just about half of the students there go on to a four-year college, according to state Department of Education statistics.

But past the metal detector at the entrance, there was a somewhat incongruously upbeat sight. Students with beaming smiles were spending their fourth period cleaning up a neglected, overgrown courtyard. Volunteers slapped fresh coats of paint on picnic benches. Others stuffed garbage bags with branches and mingled with GE volunteers who came as part of the fundraising gift.

All told, Central students logged 11,000 hours of volunteer time this school year, both on the property and at places like local veterans homes, says Missy Shields, buildOn’s vice president of U.S. programs. Put another way, 800 of the school’s 2,000 students have put in time, according to Shields. “Kids like us because it allows them to feel part of something bigger, part of a family, and for them it’s all about that feeling,” Shields says during a visit to the volunteer event.

There may also be a simpler explanation: buildOn deftly creates the appearance that all the cool kids are doing it. “My friends all had the black buildOn T-shirts, and I got really jealous,” says Kassia Araujo, then a seventeen-year-old Central senior whose first local project involved handing out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to homeless people on a cold day in downtown Bridgeport. “I was surprised that it was fun,” Araujo says.

Later, she signed up for a “trek,” what buildOn calls the overseas trips to construct schools, though less than half of them are made up of high-schoolers. The trek in Araujo’s case, a two-week expedition, was to Senegal. Meanwhile, Jaymi Gooden, also seventeen, spent her trek in Malawi sleeping on concrete on her first trip out of the country.

As she heads off to The College at Brockport SUNY this fall to study journalism, Gooden, who won Central’s century-old Barnum Prize this year for an essay on how to improve Bridgeport, credits buildOn for helping her stay on top of her studies, even as she admits it might seem unlikely that teenagers would rally to do free work in their downtime. “I could be at home sleeping and watching SpongeBob,” Gooden says.

“But once you get into this, there’s no stopping.”

Of course, other teens will benefit without having to get a passport, which organizers admit can be a scary prospect for some parents; some of the countries where schools are built can be dangerous. “We were scared to death at first,” Parke, the board member, says. But with proper medical supplies in place, and ample insurance, the international programs now can run smoothly, he says, adding, “it has been a bold adventure.”

Realizing that teens, especially those who may come from difficult home circumstances, are not afraid of doing hard, often dirty work for other people may be one of buildOn’s most defining traits. Indeed, Ziolkowski can be almost fervent about the belief that kids should get all of the credit for buildOn’s success. “Hey man, it’s them. They’re the heroes,” he says, hands gesticulating, his salad ignored.                              

But for all his boyish qualities, which perhaps make him the ideal go-between for his industry, Ziolkowski can also rattle off quotes from Winston Churchill and names like Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, in one sitting.

In his personal life, he also seems to hew strongly to principle. A vegetarian who occasionally eats fish, Ziolkowski will only order those species that are not endangered, which he determines by consulting an app called “Seafood Watch.”

His wife Jenny Ziolkowski, a Chicago native who years ago gave up her own job at Nestlé Waters to teach at-risk kids, says he can be impatient. “He’s intense, he has a vision and he wants things to happen quickly,” she says. But she continues to be amazed by his ease with, and trust of, strangers. Jim has invited home people he’s met on Metro-North trains in need of a place to stay, Jenny adds. He also freely chats with seatmates in movie theaters. A decade ago, during a documentary at the Avon Theatre, Jim met a couple that the Ziolkowskis still trick-or-treat with today. “He just has that way about him,” Jenny says.

But in many ways, Ziolkowski’s cheerful demeanor has been tested recently. Jack, his oldest son at nine years old, was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder that causes regular seizures. He and brother Quinn, who is six, are students at Julia A. Stark School. “There’s such an immense opportunity to find meaning in your moment of suffering, in your moment of pain, in your moments of desperation,” Ziolkowski says. “The biggest challenges don’t build character; they reveal it.”

When lunch is over, Ziolkowski slings a bag over his shoulder and sets off for the train for another pitch meeting. On this day East 125th Street is hot, noisy and packed with vendors hawking CDs, food carts, police officers, and people pinballing about. Ziolkowski pushes forward but coolly weaves past all of it, driven but calm, just a face in a crowd. And with a casual wave and a smile, he’s gone.                                  

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