Can One Person Change the World?


Jim Ziolkowski’s life forever changed after traveling to developing countries over 20 years ago. Upon returning to the U.S., he left his corporate career in finance and devoted his life to helping inner-city teens with his charity, buildOn. In his new book – Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World? ($25, Simon & Schuster) – Mr. Ziolkowski discusses how each one of us can make an impact through service. The book releases Tuesday, Sept. 17, and is available at Here, Mr. Ziolkowski tells us more about his life’s work…

When did you start buildOn? I founded buildOn in 1991, after leaving my corporate finance job at GE.

What have you accomplished since then? In the last 22 years, buildOn has empowered urban youth to contribute more than 1 million hours of service to their communities through our after school programs, and to build more than 550 schools worldwide. By learning that they can make a difference in the world, these students realize that they have the same power to improve their own lives, and that education is the key. Nationwide, 94 percent of buildOn students not only graduate high school, but go on to college.

 How many people’s lives can one person touch and make a difference? I believe the potential for any one person to change lives is endless and that everyone can do it. We are all capable of changing the world. That doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and move to Africa, but in most cases you have to confront your fears and you have to ask yourself: What am I willing to do to make a real difference in my community, my country?

What inspired you to start buildOn? After college, I traveled abroad to developing countries. When I was visiting India, Thailand and Nepal, I saw cities and villages mired in extreme poverty. I saw families living in mud huts without running water or electricity. The more I traveled in regions of poverty, the more clearly I saw that those conditions were directly related to rampant illiteracy and the general lack of education. But I also saw that these communities desperately wanted their own children to read and write.

My experiences in developing countries made me more sensitive to the poverty in the U.S., particularly affecting urban youth. The problems of our inner cities are intimidating, and many adults had given up, but I thought that the kids themselves wanted to build a better community and to be part of the solution.

So, I left GE to start a nonprofit organization for urban youth in America’s most impoverished inner cities that would engage students in community service so they would be distributors of goodwill instead of only recipients. I wanted these students to visit senior centers, help the disabled, clean up parks and abandoned lots, and work at the very food pantries on which some of their own families depended. And perhaps most audaciously, I wanted these same students to help us build schools in the world’s poorest countries so children there would receive long-overdue educational opportunities.

What was it like meeting the Dalai Lama? In 1997, I was able to meet with The Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. He spoke to me for well over an hour, and what came through most memorably was his intelligence, compassion, and sense of humor. Perhaps the greatest gift from the meeting occurred before it actually began, when I saw a poem he had written titled “Never Give Up” hanging on the wall. It read in part: “Be compassionate, not just for your friends / but for everyone . . . [and] Never give up / No matter what is going on around you / Never give up.” The poem was a plea for compassion and resilience and has guided me throughout my life.

When you pre-order Walk in Their Shoes, a donor match of $15 will go to build a school in Malawi, Africa. You’ll also be instantly entered to win a trip for two to see our in Africa. Pay it forward…


About Cindy Burns

Currently writing for TCW's 'Woman About Town' column, Cindy Burns covers Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, and interviews women and men who are making a difference in the world. With an M.A. in American History from DePaul University, Ms. Burns is an author, freelance writer, avid reader and researcher. Ms. Burns has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She is also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. When Ms. Burns isn't running around Chicago covering current events, you can find her biking, on the tennis courts, or hiking in a mountainous region of her choice.