4 Totally Realistic Ways To Make A Difference In The World

09/19/2013 10:01 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015
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Want to make a difference but don't know where or how to start? Consider these unexpected but realistic ways... from a man who's spent his life giving back.

By Leigh Newman

Moved by the poverty he'd seen on his travels, Jim Ziolkowski gave up a lucrative career in finance to start buildOn -- a nonprofit that runs after-school programs in disadvantaged areas of the U.S. and builds free schools for children around the globe. His new memoir, Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World? details his experiences in the South Bronx, Mali, Haiti, Nepal and Detroit, as well as chronicles the lives of the kids and adults he met along the way. Last week, he sat down with Oprah.com to explain how each of us can pitch in in large, measurable ways -- without quitting our jobs, giving up everything we own and moving across the ocean.

1. Start With Your Own Family
So many of us think that we have to go out into the world to serve, but as we search for that nearby soup kitchen or nursing home, we forget how many isolated, needy members of society exist in our immediate circle. Is there a nephew in your life without anyone to take him to (or pay for) his school? Is there an elderly aunt whose car needs an oil change? Compassion, says Ziolkowski, isn't just for strangers.

2. Rethink Your Birthday
We all want to volunteer regularly, but when our calendars start exploding with to-dos, we often forget to schedule the hours -- or can't even find them. Instead, consider celebrating your birthday with eight hours of service. It's easy to remember; whether you like it or not, that particular day happens without fail.

The idea, Ziolkowski credits to Rayia Gaddy, a teenager in his Detroit after-school program. Three weeks before her 15th birthday, Gaddy's big brother Vandel was killed, shot in the back by an AK-47; she was devastated. "She couldn't talk to people," he says, " She couldn't come out of her room." When her birthday arrived, she knew she didn't want to throw a party. Instead, she headed to a homeless shelter for veterans and spent the day serving meals and playing board games, an eight-hour stretch that inspired her to become a permanent helper at the facility. How many of us moan and groan about our own birthdays? What if, instead, it was the day that most inspired you? In Gaddy's case, that one "celebration" prompted her to complete 700 hours of life-changing work … while she was still in high school.

3. Be You. Even The Not-So-Chipper You
Nobody really brings this up, says Ziolkowski, but we sometimes feel as if we have to act differently when we're helping people -- pulled together, positive and cheerful at every moment. But take the case of Gaddy. During her first day at the veterans' center, she tried to smile, to fake her way through it, until several of the men asked her what was the matter. "They had been through trauma themselves in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam," Ziolkowski says, "and they could sense that something was wrong." When she told the truth about why she had come, she and the men formed a connection, which helped her as much as them. That's the secret of service, says Ziolkowski, it's about both people receiving.

4. Start A Chain Reaction
Feeding and providing shelter for children is crucial, but so is teaching kids -- not just to fish or to farm or to read -- but to help others. This is especially true with underprivileged children, says Ziolkowski. By donating their time and efforts, they realize that even if they don't have an Xbox or a car or, in some cases, a house, they can contribute something, be it time or kindness or experience. This is why the participants in Ziolkowski's Detroit-area after-school programs are sent to Africa to build schools. If you teach a child to serve, he says, "There's a chain reaction." Gaddy, for example, after volunteering at her local homeless veterans' shelter, traveled with buildOn to Nicaragua to build schools in developing villages; now she runs her own volunteer programs at college. "All told," says Ziolkowski, "the people she's influenced are in the thousands."

Jim Ziolkowski is the founder of buildOn and the author of Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?

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