Building a Better Future

Jeffrey Steen |

Underneath a blazing Malawi sun, barefoot children run in the dust. Their village is like many in this impoverished nation: straw-thatched mud huts congregate around a haphazard well, too often empty. During the peak of the day, their parents disappear in fields to harvest what they can of tobacco, sugarcane, and corn. If the season is good to them, they have clothes to wear and food to eat.

But almost never do the children see a classroom.

Half a world away, in the run-down, dilapidated high schools in the Bay Area, children muddle through classes with no money for extra-curricular activities. Many come from challenging family situations and most walk home alone through dangerous parts of the city to crime-infested neighborhoods.

In both these contexts, children suffer needlessly from lack of education and poor quality of life. There are solutions, but too often governments and support institutions lack the initiative, the funding, or the personnel to implement them. Which is why buildOn is stepping in.

buildOn is the realized dream of Founder Jim Ziolkowski, started some 22 years ago. His mission is simple: to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education. buildOn works in underprivileged American high schools and in countless international communities from Africa to Haiti.

Since its inception, buildOn has grown to inspiring proportions: over 1.2 million hours of community service clocked, 73 after-school programs delivered, and 567 schools constructed in the most impoverished countries across the world.

Part of what makes buildOn such a phenomenally impactful organization is its foundation in education and training. Jay Hirschton, Vice President for the West Coast Region, says that 95-percent of the high school seniors that buildOn works with in the U.S. with go on to graduate high school and pursue a college education.

And while this emphasis on education is key, so is the need to apply knowledge. “Our domestic after-school programs are unique in that we teach students local and international issues, then we guide them into community service projects that arise from these issues,” Hirschton says. “Recently for example, we focused on the importance of water sourcing—in the U.S. and around the world.”

Many of these American students are touched by buildOn's involvement in their lives, and end up working in their own communities. But they also have the opportunity to go abroad and work with developing villages in Haiti, Nicaragua, Nepal, Senegal, Malawi, and other communities in need.

“Our vision for this mission-building is unique,” Hirschton says. “We don't just walk in and throw down a school and walk away. We give communities the resources they need to survive and grow. We partner with ministries of education to support these local efforts. We ensure that the schools have the right teachers, and we come back every year to make sure all of our schools are functioning effectively.”

But as with any non-profit organization, funding is always part of the equation. Locally, buildOn has developed some great relationships to support their funding efforts. For example, restaurant sensation Tacolicious has donated 10-percent of their Monday profits to buildOn for two years. In addition, the organization's big fundraising galas, hosted at the Westin St. Francis, continue to showcase the eminent talent of San Francisco chefs like Michael Mina, Michael Tusk of Quince, and the team behind carnival-themed Straw Restaurant. The auctions they host raise no small amount; last year's big gala brought in over 500 guests and enjoyed more than $700,000 in donations.

Every year is a new challenge, however—to maintain resources, to continue programming, to improve urban communities domestically and in developing countries abroad. If you're interested in partnering with buildOn to help change the lives of underserved children and families, then reach out to get involved. From organizing local events to raising the roof on schools in Africa, everything you do makes a difference.

For more information, contact Jay Hirschton at [email protected].