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As a 21-year-old college student in 2005, Adam Braun embarked on a round-the-world trip and visited developing countries in the hopes of better understanding the world and its people. When he came across a boy who was begging on the streets of India, he asked him what he wanted the most in the world. The boy replied, “A pencil.”
“The need for education in the developing world was really highlighted for me through that exchange,” says Braun. “A child not having a pencil was just so foreign to the belief system that I held—that education should be available to everyone—that I just wanted to do something about it immediately.” This experience led Braun to spend the next five years backpacking through more than 50 countries in six continents, handing out pens and pencils to children he met.
“Getting into remote areas of the world and speaking with children not only humbles you, but you also find out what’s most important or what’s essential,” Braun says. “In my experience handing out pencils, it also opened up the conversation with their parents, and they consistently said what they wanted wasn’t a better job or less government corruption, but education for their children.”
In 2008, Braun founded Pencils of Promise (PoP) with $25 and with the commitment to help bring education to all. Originally, he set out to build just one school in Laos and dedicate it to his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whom he describes as “the heart of my family.” But as other people became interested in the cause, more and more schools were built; to date, they have 58 schools up and running in Nicaragua, Laos and Guatemala, and the current goal is to break ground on their one hundredth school by the end of 2012. “There’s been tremendous growth,” Braun says. “Our expectations and ambitions grow every single day.”
PoP approaches building a school with a model of scalability and sustainability; part of the goal is to empower locals in the community in which the school will be built. First, the organization identifies a need and commitment in the community, then sources and works with local materials and people to build the school. It also provides educational programs, professional development for teachers and staff, as well as monitoring the programs once the school is operational.
Another goal is to empower the youth everywhere, and one way to achieve this is through PoP’s presence in social media. “One of the things that inspires me is when a young person tweets or posts about this organization and our story and how much it has changed their lives,” says Braun. “We want to give young people the opportunity to participate, because everyone can make a difference.”
To that end, PoP recently launched a fundraising platform called SchoolBuilder, an online tool much like Kickstarter that allows anyone to start a campaign to help build a school. The organization has also started a fundraising campaign called the Impossible Ones, in which participants are encouraged to do an “impossible” thing—running a 10K, skydiving, bicycling across the country, or whatever challenge you desire to conquer—by end of October and help raise money for PoP’s one hundreth school. “When I was looking to start Pencils of Promise, people consistently told me that it was going to be impossible,” says Braun. “What we love and want to do here is to celebrate other individuals that are willing to do something people say is impossible, and because of that they’re willing to run at it full force.”