The Right to Write: How One Pencil Started a Revolution

Feb 24, 2011
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

A child in India and grandparents who survived the Holocaust propelled Adam Braun to start Pencils of Promise, an organization that builds schools in some of the world's poorest countries—Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Adam and students at a Pencils of Promise school. (Photo: Nick Onken)

When he founded Pencils of Promise, Adam was 24 years old. "From day one, people were telling me it was going to be impossible," he tells TakePart.

Two years later, 21 schools have been built. Thirty will be up and running by the end of 2011.

Before he was overtaken by the idea for Pencils of Promise, Adam was on a fast path toward a lucrative corporate America success story. This all changed when he was backpacking as a teenager in India and met a little boy begging on the streets.

Adam asked him, "What do you want most in the world?"

The boy's reply: "A pencil."

Adam and one of the Pencils of Promise students. (Photo: Nick Onken)

This seed started Adam's journey. For the next five years, he "backpacked relentlessly," meeting people in poor communities in the developing world. He traveled to 50 countries. Each place he stopped, he handed out pens and pencils to the kids.

"I'd come home, I'd work, finish up my classes, and then I would just book an open-ended ticket to a really poor part of the world," he says.

He met a father in a remote Guatemalan community. The man approached Adam on the beach and asked him to read his Bible in English into a tape recorder.

"He wanted to listen to my English so he could teach his children," Adam explains.

A parent struggling to give a child an education rang close to home. "My grandfathers emigrated to this country so my mother and father could have a better education. Both my parents worked really really hard so my siblings and I could have a better education," he says.

During the Holocaust, Braun's grandparents were sent to concentration camps. "They survived through a series of miracles," he says.

Adam looked at his life. He wanted to give back in a way that was in line with his family’s legacy. "The biggest single way I could find to give back, was to start Pencils of Promise, build a lot of schools and inspire kids globally."

He chose Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala to build schools, for three reasons.

Nit was one of the first students at a Pencils of Promise school in Laos. (Photo: Nick Orken)

"The first reason is really the need was there. The second is the people and the culture is really yearning for self-sustaining education. And the last part, is we as a team, and me personally, fell deeply in love with these places and developed partnerships that could help facilitate work on the ground."

Pencils of Promise's first school was built in Pha Theung, Laos.

Adam came to the village on a Sunday. Their school was no more than a bamboo hut. Inside, three young girls drew letters on a chalkboard.

"It immediately hit me. I thought: This is the type of place; these are the type of people I want to help."

The village was home to 61 preschool age children, and Pencils of Promise worked with the local community to build them a school.

Three of the first students were Nuth, Nit, and Tamund. They were younger siblings to the girls Adam had met that first day in Pha Theung. Now in their second year, the girls are some of the school's brightest students.

Adam dedicated this school to his grandparents. "It was a small way I could honor them," he says.

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