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The man behind buildOn explains his passion to change the world

Jim Ziolkowski gave up a high profile career in corporate finance and went to work for his conscience. Spurred by his faith and his belief in the promise of the human spirit, Ziolkowski formed buildOn, and organization dedicated to helping inner-city teens turn their lives around. In "Walk in Their Shoes," he explains how he found his motivation. Here's an excerpt.The Great Recession took a toll

Jim Ziolkowski gave up a high profile career in corporate finance and went to work for his conscience. Spurred by his faith and his belief in the promise of the human spirit, Ziolkowski formed buildOn, and organization dedicated to helping inner-city teens turn their lives around. In "Walk in Their Shoes," he explains how he found his motivation. Here's an excerpt.

'Walk in Their Shoes'
Today

The Great Recession took a toll on nonprofits. Many had to scale back while others shut down. But, buildOn built 92 more schools in 2008 and 2009, developed more intensive after-school service programs in the States, and increased the number of kids we reached by 30 percent.

The year 2010 was a milestone for buildOn, as we had survived the economic storm without any cutbacks or program reductions, and we were returning to expected growth rates. It was also a milestone for our family.

Jenny and I had two sons by then; Quinn was born in 2007. Jack was entering first grade at Stark Elementary School. Before I left for work on his first day, Jack stood at the front door, still carrying that summertime glow. He had a big dimpled smile on his face, and as I aimed my camera, Quinn gave him a hug.

That afternoon I was rushing to catch a train when I flipped on my BlackBerry and saw a message. Jack had collapsed in the hall, and the nurse was about to call an ambulance. Jenny didn’t know anything else.

“Meet me at the hospital,” she said.

The day had gone smoothly until lunch. Then, on Jack’s return from the cafeteria, he fell behind. A teacher saw him drifting, his eyes glazed over. She reached out her hand. He took it but then spun to the ground and fell in a heap. His eyes rolled back. His body shook with tremors. He was having a massive tonic-clonic seizure, and he was still seizing when the nurse arrived.

He had stabilized by the time he reached the hospital, and he was able to talk to us as we waited for the neurologist. We were all pretty calm. Then I looked up and saw Jack’s head twitching.

“Jenny,” I said.

His body stiffened, his mouth began to froth, his lips turned blue, and his eyes popped wide open. He stopped breathing. He was having another seizure, and we shouted for help.

Five or six minutes passed before the seizure eased. But when you’re holding your son helplessly as he convulses, every second seems like an eternity.

***

In preschool Jack scored two years above his age level on the assessment tests, but now he didn’t know his last name, couldn’t remember his birthday, couldn’t walk. The full significance of the crisis hit me. Was my son going to die?

After several weeks the doctors finally met with us to give us a diagnosis. Bad news: meningo-encephalitis, an insect-borne infection of the brain and the spinal fluid. It must have been from a mosquito bite. A completely random event. Jack was lucky to be alive.

But though we had a diagnosis, we had no prognosis. Jack might recover some day, but the doctors couldn’t tell us to what extent he would regain cognitive brain function. Would he be able to relearn his name and walk and talk again?

Those were brutal questions, but I tried to keep perspective. Only a few months before Jack had collapsed, I spent time in refugee camps in Haiti after the devastating earthquake had crushed so much of that country. I met children without parents, parents without children; I saw cities without food, water, or shelter; villages without medicine, a land broken in every possible way.

If Jack had been Haitian, even without the earthquake, he’d be dead. Instead, he was alive and receiving state-of-the-art care.

Those thoughts brought moments of relief. But they passed all too quickly.

I have seen a great deal of undeserved suffering, both in this country and abroad, and those experiences led me to my life’s work. But watching Jack now was a reminder that my family and I were not immune from unbearable agonies. Suffering is part of the human condition, and when you realize that modern science cannot eliminate that suffering, you can rely only on that which is always present: God. So I pray.

***

Through buildOn, I have witnessed extraordinary courage in my life. The strength of the people I have met in our program is my strength, and because of them, I know what the body can endure and what the spirit can overcome.

Many boys look up to their father as their hero. In our house, Jack is my hero: tough, unwavering, and courageous. He’s also taught me a lot. I realized long ago that I could never truly walk in the shoes of the people I wanted to help. I tried, but it wasn’t possible. Yes, I could live in their community and experience their pain as well as their joy, but I always had something they didn’t have: resources. I could buy food or medicine or drive off or even fly away. I controlled my destiny. But that feeling changed when Jack was stricken. His disease mocks our brightest doctors, humbles modern medicine, and renders money useless. Those who feel they’ve lost control over their life, even for a moment, well, I can now walk a few steps in their shoes.

Excerpted from WALK IN THEIR SHOES by Jim Ziolkowski. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Ziolkowsi. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.