A Young Boy Asked For A Pencil And A Global Nonprofit Was Born

A few years ago, Adam Braun gave up a job in high finance and said goodbye to the land of men in fancy suits because of one of those random moments that tends to nudge a person’s life down the road less traveled.  Braun, in his mid-20s at the time, wanted to temporarily hop off the spinning hamster wheel of his daily grind, so he put a promising business and finance career path on hold and launched a personal expedition to go overseas. He joined a program called Semester at Sea, and what happened next set him on the course to becoming the renowned philanthropist he is today.  One of his greatest endeavors is founding a nonprofit that’s built more than 200 schools around the world, which he describes in his new book called The Promise of a Pencil that lays out his extraordinary life and opens with a starry-eyed promise.

“Every person,” Braun writes in the introduction, “has a revolution beating in their chest.”


Part of The Promise of a Pencil is a travelogue that takes the reader along for the twists and turns that come with someone like Braun traversing the globe for the first time. But marking points on a map and absorbing stunning vistas aren’t the point of these recollections.  The lane changes we make in life aren’t always preceded by bright flashing indicator lights that make us stop what we're doing and pay attention. Braun, likewise, was unaware of the inflection point he was approaching. For the trip, his story goes, he decided that rather than stuff his backpack with the typical souvenirs of a tourist like T-shirts from the places he visited, he would instead approach a child in each country he visited and ask this question:  “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?”  He expected to hear replies of modern extravagance – a TV, an iPod and the like, with the collection of answers painting an interesting cultural topography of the world. But he got something more.  One young girl in Hawaii, who approached him and asked if they could be friends, thought about Braun’s question – What if you could have anything, what would you want? – and she confidently answered: “To dance.” During a stop in Beijing, he asked a girl near the entrance to the famed Forbidden Temple the same question. “A book,” is what she said she wanted most of all. In Kowloon, Hong Kong, a young boy told him he wanted “magic.”

While visiting the Agra Fort, in view of the Taj Mahal, Braun pulled away from his traveling companions and approached a boy he’d seen begging. The response the boy gave Braun to his question especially floored him: most of all, the boy said, he wanted “a pencil.”  Braun happened to have a No. 2 yellow pencil in his backpack. He took it out and gave it to the boy.

(Source: TheNextWeb)

“As it passed from my hand to his, his face lit up,” Braun writes. “[T]he boy had never been to school, but he had seen other children writing with pencils...For me, the pencil was a writing utensil, but for him it was a key. It was a symbol. It was a portal to creativity, curiosity, and possibility. Every great inventor, architect, scientist and mathematician began as a child holding nothing more than a pencil.”

And thus was Braun’s epiphany. Making a difference didn’t have to entail writing a large check to someone, he thought. This is what he would do, right here. He would give children he encountered on his travels pencils and pens.  Braun eventually headed home to New York. His life settled back into the familiar rhythm of predictability. One night, while attending a performance of the New York Philharmonic, he closed his eyes and listened to the pianist expertly perform a piece by Rachmaninoff, and he was moved.

“I thought, if I could feel as strongly about any one thing in the world as this man feels about his piano, I know that I would be fulfilled,” Braun writes.

The phrase suddenly came to him.  Pencils of Promise.  He stayed up all night that night sketching out a plan for the organization. Pencils are a symbol of education, and from there he landed on what would be the purpose of the organization he decided to launch: building primary education schools in poverty-stricken areas in developed nations.  The rest of his new book talks about the hard work of setting up the nonprofit. The exhilaration of its work coming to fruition is evident in things like the group’s first Facebook post, in January 2009: “We will be breaking ground on our first school in Pha Teung, Laos in March 2009!”

In a recent interview with Forbes, Braun waxed philosophical about meaning, fulfillment and the purpose of existence.  “Make your life a story worth telling,” he told his interviewer. “One day, when you’re gone, the most important thing you’ll leave behind is the legacy of the life you lived.”

(Source: Rossier Online)

In the hopes of inspiring others to do that, he wrote his down in the form of a book.

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