Book Nook

Published: Sunday November 2, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday November 2, 2014 MYT 8:20:05 AM

Book Nook in Japan

Jim Ziolkowski doing what he does best: spreading hope among poverty-stricken children with the help of his foundation, BuildOn. – Photo from

Jim Ziolkowski doing what he does best: spreading hope among poverty-stricken children with the help of his foundation, BuildOn. – Photo from

A book fairy's gift inspires the columnist with hope.

ONCE in a while, we find ourselves drowning in dejection and completely losing faith in humanity. When that happens, I yearn for stillness and peace. A breath of fresh air is needed. And so we recently travelled to Kyushu, Japan, which is famous for its serenity.

As we revelled in the picturesque parks, padi fields, and palaces, I lugged along with me, ironically, Henry Kissinger’s World Order. It is a book that is heavy, literally and figuratively, as it discusses the chaos in the world. But why carry along only the burdens of the world, even if they are written about eloquently, when I could also bring along something literally and figuratively lighter? So I popped Walk In Their Shoes: Can One Person Change The World? into my bag, instantly feeling merrier.

What an engagingly inspiring book it turned out to be. Jim Ziolkowski (who was assisted by James S. Hirsch in writing the book) resigned from his high-flying career at American multinational GE to dedicate his life to good causes.

Through BuildOn, a nonprofit organisation he set up, he amasses help from friends and builds schools for underprivileged children in the world’s poorer countries. Sounds like yet another moral endeavour by many similar Americans, doesn’t it? But this book is many things rolled into one. A traveller’s guide as well as an inspirational biography, it is candid, nail-biting, moving, eye-opening, engaging, and educational.

I found myself deeply immersed in it whenever we were riding trains and buses or waiting to board them. That surely was not a good way to travel but with the surroundings so calm and safe, I felt comfortable allowing the children to roam nearby, exploring on their own. The feeling was exceptional. The sights and sounds of Okayama’s countryside and its tranquillity epitomise the beauty the world once possessed in abundance before mankind destroyed much of it – and the thought that someone out there is trying to make the world better brings hope. This book does make one happy.

Ziolkowski strikes many chords with his story. “I couldn’t reconcile the intense work in the comfortable offices in Connecticut with the harsh suffering I had seen in those overwhelmed cities in India,” he writes, seemingly feeling as miserable as I had felt after a trip to India many years ago. Images of a poor little girl trying to sell me flowers in the middle of a broad, posh avenue in Mumbai have long been etched in my mind, and I regret not making a difference in her life.

Ziolkowski does make a difference. He helps put children into the schools he has built and completely transforms their lives. The process is no means easy. He has had guns pointed at him in Johannesburg in areas where apartheid’s tendrils remain intractable. He perseveres through all of it because his view of poverty is anything but detached. Other people’s, or another country’s, problems have everything to do with us – Ziolkowski hopes to use his movement to introduce this idea to his fellow Americans. And many have followed him in mixing cement and laying bricks to build schools for children who came for their first lesson in their most colourful African garb, their way of paying respect to schools and learning, though their distended bellies stole much of the limelight.

I heaved another sigh, admiring the beauty of the shrine in Kyoto and the grace of Japanese women in kimonos. How wonderful life would be if there are more people like Ziolkowski. What can I do, I wondered, even if what I do amounts to just a speck compared with what he does?

That’s when we spotted a ragged man in ragged clothes. As he knelt on a ragged straw mat, downcast, his body remained straight with dignity. My son rushed to buy him a burger and then sprinted to another stall for ice cream. Will we risk offending him, just as Ziolkowski had offended corrupt officials? But a young boy couldn’t care less. The man looked up, his eyes turning instantly from hopelessness to hopefulness. My son, trying to offer comfort, essayed a tentative “Daijobu (all right)?” I heaved another happy sigh.

It was much later when my son confessed: He had spotted the title of Ziolkowski’s book. Those few words had inspired him to perform a random act of kindness. Though he didn’t walk in the ragged man’s shoes, he did attempt to change a moment of his life by offering food.

Isn’t this book a breath of fresh air?

Abby Wong thanks her book fairy, Jet Yau, for gifting her with the Jim Ziolkowski book. She always seeks out her book fairy for good books, and the fairy never fails her.

Tags / Keywords: Book Nook, Abby Wong, Walk In Their Shoes, charity, BuildOn

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Jim Ziolkowski doing what he does best: spreading hope among poverty-stricken children with the help of his foundation, BuildOn. – Photo from

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