Pencils of Promise Founder Reminds Us to Focus on the Children, Not Just the Statistics

Feeling helpless and struggling to reconcile the urge to help them all, he asked one child on the side of the road what he wanted most in the world. The boy answered, "A pencil."
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When we think of one impoverished child, the camera of our minds pan back further, and further, and further. There are so, so many, we think. What can we possibly do? It all feels too big, and too sad, and so often, we ignore it and try to focus on what's in front of us.

But the people who change the world, in ways both big and small, don't. They act, and they figure out what needs they can help meet.

One of those people is Adam Braun. While on a college trip to India in 2005, Braun immediately became overwhelmed at the number of four-year-olds he encountered carrying infants in their arms. They were begging for food, their faces twisted in pain. Feeling helpless and struggling to reconcile the urge to help them all, he asked one child on the side of the road what he wanted most in the world.

The boy answered, "A pencil."

Thus, the nonprofit Pencils of Promise was born, an organization he founded to help build schools in impoverished cities and villages in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

To date, the program has brought hope to children around the world in the form of 10 million hours of education.

In anticipation of the release of his upcoming memoir, The Promise of a Pencil, I did a Google search on the organization and found what I unfortunately find too often -- the start-up story, the facts, and the figures. But where were the actual stories about the children?

When I reached out to Braun, he was grateful for the chance to finally talk about the children whose lives the organization has impacted -- and said that I was the first journalist who's ever really asked.

He began by to sharing the story of 11-year-old Juana Christina, who lives in Guatemala with her seven family members. For months, the children in her community weren't allowed to go to school because the roof was caving in. After Pencils of Promise built them a new school, she told Braun, "Today, we have a new hope. We have a chance. For the first time, I think my dreams will become real."

Another little girl in Ghana named Happy jumped up and down with excitement when she learned she'd be able to go to school with her younger sister, Present.

"She explained to me that she used to dread going to school because she hated to leave her sister every day," said Braun. "She said, 'Now, I can see me and my sister going on to live a better life.'"

Upon the opening of a school in one Laos community, Braun recalled, a tearful parent said, "Before Pencils of Promise, I had to choose which of my children I sent to school each morning, the boy or the girl. It was one or the other. Now, I get to send both of them."

Because the dropout rate is so high once children reach secondary school around age 12 -- and higher among girls, specifically -- Pencils of Promise builds scholarships into their educational programs to try to bridge the gap. Thus, little girls like Nith and Nuth, two best friends from the same village in Laos, believe that they can have real careers and won't need to beg to survive.

When Braun told them they were going to be the very first students at the very first school Pencils of Promise had ever built, the four-year-olds giggled and laughed as they hovered over his shoulder, watching him work his video camera. On his numerous visits back to that school over the past nine years, he's watched them grow up.

"Whenever I see them, they usually say, 'I love going to school, I'm going to have a career,'"Braun said. "Their lives are difficult, but they get to spend every day together. Now, instead of planning to become a farmer or a seamstress, they believe that they can become a doctor or a lawyer."

Lastly, he shared the story of another little girl he met while building a school in her community, one who had been living in a tiny hut with three other girls. When Braun asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, "A teacher. I want to go back to my village and make sure no girl has to go through what I have to go through, I want every girl in my community to have access to great education."

Clearly, when it comes to charities and nonprofits, we need to tell more stories that go beyond financial figures and galas. How often do we get to read stories about the impact initiatives like this make everyday here at home, beyond the coverage they get in small, local papers?

We need to tell the stories of the people whose lives are changed, of the volunteers who help them, of the experiences they have. There are thousands of people doing good out there who don't get the notoriety of people who write books and start foundations.

"The role of the media is to uncover the truths that will resonate with their audience," said Braun. "The media is capable of influencing peoples' lives. When they tell the stories of underdogs overcoming impossible odds, especially when those people are trying to improve the state of the world for others, the media does a real service to the people they're trying to share stories about."

It's the people who commit to helping others, through initiatives of all sizes, that are changing our world.

As Braun writes in his book, "Take the first small step, and chase the footprints you aspire to leave behind."

It's our responsibility as journalists to document the impact that makes.

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