It Takes a Village: The Story of buildOn

Watching the beggars on the broken streets of New Delhi changed Jim Ziolkowski’s life forever.

In 1990, he had landed a high-paying job out of college at GE and seemed set for life. Flexible hours. More money than he needed at the time. The prestige a young businessman craves.

That all changed on a fateful trip to see the world. He was shaken to the core at the sights of poverty in India, and the words of a recently read book seeped deeply into his heart, “There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul,” wrote Albert Schweitzer in “Reverence for Life.”

The “sickness,” or, as Jim describes it in his book “Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World,” was “living superficially,” and he could no longer take it.


His story describes his quest for deeper meaning, which led him to co-found “Building with Books,” a non-profit organization devoted to bringing schools to unreached communities in developing countries such as Nepal, Brazil, Malawi and more. The idea was to bring education to every corner of the world and give women, girls and children a chance to learn and raise up their communities. But, unlike some Western models where the organization goes into the village, builds the school and then leaves, Jim was committed to building relationships with the elders in the community, getting their buy-in and having them elect a board and ultimately build the school themselves, with resources and infrastructure provided by the organization.

Fast-forward a few years later, and his story takes you on a trip to Malawi, Africa. It was 1993 and some of the tasks ahead of the crew building the school seemed insurmountable. To get to the isolated village, one had to take a plane, then a long bumpy bus ride for hours and hope to find the location. Once there, disease, rats and other nuisances were a normal, dangerous (and daily) threat and resources were scarce.

Here’s one passage that struck me to the core as I read it:

“I came across a kiln that was built specifically to make the school bricks. The villagers had to dig pits in the adobe, flood the pits to soften the clay and then hand-pack the mud into single brick molds. They let them dry out for a few days and then stacked thousands of them into the shape of a large kiln with three main tunnels. They sealed the kiln in a layer of adobe to contain the heat, then packed each tunnel with firewood and maintained the flames for about thirty-six hours until the bricks were burned.

They had made 40,000 bricks in this fashion, still stacked in the shape of the giant kiln.

I was awestruck–then worried. The bricks were more than half of a mile away from the school’s work site, and all we had to transport them were two old wheelbarrows.

…We finally completed the digging of the foundation and I had my small crew waiting. All we needed were the bricks to start constructing the walls. I asked the chief about the bricks and he said they were coming. I wondered if he had lost his mind and I feared the project would die.

Then, about 15 minutes later, I heard some singing ‘Chimwehweh, chimwehweh, chimwehweh.’ I looked up and through the trees, I saw several women walking toward me. Then several more, a dozen, two dozen, 50 in all. Each woman had six to eight bricks balanced on her head, some carrying babies on their backs just below the stack of bricks! Others carried quarry stones as well. Behind them came the boys, who carried bricks in their arms, and the girls, who had piled them on their heads. Two hundred kids in all.

The women and children understood the value of that school, and they hauled 40,000 bricks in one day. Not one was dropped in transit.”

I wonder how far we would go to build a school in our communities? Would we do what they did? Do we understand the value of an education the way those villagers do?

malawi school

I’m blown away by this story and also at the symbolism it has for me. Some days, the fundraising seems insurmountable. Some days, I’m not sure how big the village behind me is to help me accomplish the task. Some days, I feel like my “project” is going to fail.

But, ultimately, I have a vision for what this will do for the high school students who will have the life-changing experience that Jim had. I have a vision for the lives that will be changed by those high school students giving their time, sweat and possibly tears to a culture-shocking experience and seeing what the world is really like outside of their Western microcosms.

I believe in this process and I believe God brought me to this opportunity for a reason. So, I will continue to endure, reflect on this amazing story and what buildOn (formerly Building with Books) is doing every day for communities across the U.S. and around the globe.

It’s time to give these students the opportunity to walk in their shoes.

Would you consider being part of my “village” and donating to this worthy cause to help me reach my commitment of raising $6,500 for 24 students to travel to Africa on this trip of a lifetime to build a school?

Here’s how to do it.


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