Our Blog

March 26, 2015

The Big 3-0-0!

When reflecting upon the number 300, we can’t help but think about the movie with that same name. The film 300 came out in 2006, the same year our Founder, Adam Braun, graduated college. But what does a movie glorifying the Spartan empire of ancient Greece have to do with Pencils of Promise? Well, we at PoP like to think that we have a few traits in common with the bold, brave and ambitious Spartans.

Let us explain. At this moment, PoP has officially broken ground on its 300th school. To date, we’ve built 300 schools across 3 continents in 4 different countries. Each and every one of our schools in Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Laos is fully operational and educates students daily. 300 schools is a huge milestone for PoP, and one that we couldn’t have reached without the desire, passion and remarkably hard work from everyone involved with this organization. Sounds a bit Spartan-like, if you ask us.

What does 300 mean to PoP? It means results for our students.

It means that in Guatemala, 40% more PoP 2nd graders are literate than their peers and 98% of teachers reported that their students are more focused in class because of a new PoP school.

It means that in Ghana, teachers and students both report that students with e-readers are now reading 2-times as much as before.

It means that in Laos, PoP 3rd graders score 3-times higher on literacy tests than their peers.

2014 Pencils of Promise Ghana 200th

Needless to say, our PoP family might not be battling in ancient Greece. But we undoubtedly have a Spartan-like mentality in our focus and dedication toward making access to an education a reality for every child, everywhere. PoP invests in education. And the investment is paying off. As Alice, a 3rd grade student attending Okajakrom Basic School in Ghana put it:

“The best part of going to school is that we’re taught to become great people in the future.”

Think that’s ambitious? We don’t. Because that’s the power of an education – to inspire children, communities and even nations to believe in themselves and their own promise. A physical structure is just the first step; what’s happening inside the classroom is just as important as ensuring that students have a place to learn.

So, what’s next for PoP? We break ground on a new school every 100 hours. But now we’re not just creating infrastructure – 300 schools later, we’re genuinely changing what a learning experience can be for a child anywhere in the world.

We’re supporting teachers through training, lesson plans, private coaching and new literacy and numeracy methodologies. We’re awarding secondary school scholarships to students so that they can continue to receive an education. We’re providing water and hygiene lessons to teach students clean habits to keep them healthy and in school.

We’re also bringing innovations into our schools, including e-readers and tablets. We’re giving students access to books and materials, pencils and paper, notebooks and projectors; all basic classroom items that were rarely – if ever – found in their classrooms before. And we’re partnering with leading experts in the field of education, like TED Prize Winner Sugata Mitra and Microsoft, to launch a pilot around self-organized learning environments.


We know that it’s not just the physical structure of a new school that indicates success or sustainability. For that reason, we have Monitoring & Evaluation teams on the ground in each country to extensively, and continuously, test and track the progress of our students. We consistently evaluate our methodologies to ensure students achieve the best possible results and make changes to our programming if we don’t see progress. We rely on measurable data to qualify our success and remain willing to change our goals or in-classroom methods to establish the long-term effectiveness of our schools. And we’re seeing results – our programs, without question, have lead to increased student achievement.

Since 2008, Pencils of Promise has been a driving force in the fight for educational equality. As PoP reached an incredible milestone this week, it was quite apparent that our organization remains just as committed to providing children in developing countries with access to a quality education as we were six years ago.

We couldn’t have done it without you. To quote from 300 (we really like the movie!): “In the end, a Spartan's true strength is the warrior next to him.”

The same can be truly said for Pencils of Promise. Without your support, dedication and endless effort, we couldn’t have reached this remarkable milestone. Without the commitment from our communities, teachers, PoP teams on the ground and in NYC, we wouldn’t have been able to turn one school in rural Laos into 300. Most importantly, without our students – who serve as our inspiration each and every day – we wouldn’t have a purpose, the unrelenting belief that everyone, no matter where you are born, has promise.

Here’s to the next 300.

Pencils of Promise Guatemala May 2011

Olivia Wittels

Marketing Coordinator
March 8, 2015

Celebrate International Women’s Day with PoP!

Meet Anita. She’s one of our PoP students from La Primavera, Guatemala. Anita is 11-years-old and has lived in La Primavera her entire life with her mom, dad and eight brothers and sisters.
One day, Anita wants to go to college. She loves learning and really enjoys math – so much, that she says she “could do math for the rest of my life.” Anita knows that going to college will give her the opportunity to become an accountant, and maybe even work at a bank.

Today we celebrate Anita & girls like her across the world. We celebrate their ambition, hope, dedication and hard work. And we celebrate their infinite potential.

At Pencils of Promise, we recognize that receiving an education is a critical a part of unlocking the promise inherent in every woman. In fact, our Guatemala team just launched "Lideresas de Promesa," a women's leadership organization that acknowledges the importance empowering female leaders. Today is a special day as we celebrate all the wonderful women in our lives!

Olivia Wittels

Marketing Coordinator
March 5, 2015

Adam honored with prestigious Jefferson Award

What do Adam Braun, Bill Gates and Barbara Bush all have in common? Besides having a “B” in their names, they are also current and former recipients of the nation’s prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service. On March 4th, our Pencils of Promise Founder was honored at Gotham Hall in New York City at the Jefferson Award’s annual gala, emceed by CBS This Morning Co-Host, Norah O'Donnell.

Adam received the 2015 Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged award for his work building schools and supporting teachers through Pencils of Promise. The award celebrated the more than 270 schools PoP has built in Laos, Guatemala and Ghana, and highlighted Adam’s efforts to provide sustainable access to education for all children, no matter where they are born.

PoP Jefferson Award

In 1972, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Senator Robert Taft Jr. and Sam Beard founded the Jefferson Awards Foundation. 43 years later, the Jefferson Awards National Ceremony remains one of the most prestigious celebrations of public service in America. Some of the foundation’s most prominent honorees include Steve Jobs, Elie Wiesel, Peyton Manning and Michael Bloomberg. The Foundation states that, “by celebrating the outstanding service” of these individuals, “we are amplifying their solutions for others to apply in their own communities.” A 70-member Board of Selectors comprised of leaders in numerous fields, including Laura Bush, Michael Douglas, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Neil Simon and Whoopi Goldberg, selects the Jefferson Awards National Ceremony winners each year.

At the gala, Adam was honored alongside Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson, who received the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by an Athlete, and Founder and Head of The East Harlem School Ivan Hageman, who was presented with the award for Greatest Public Service by an Entrepreneur.

AB Jefferson Award

Besides honoring prominent public figures, the Jefferson Awards also recognize the “unsung heroes” of public service. Through programs like Lead360, Students in Action and GlobeChangers, the Foundation “supports, trains and empowers today’s youth to be leaders, problem solvers, entrepreneurs and impactful global citizens.” It was so exciting for Adam and Pencils of Promise to be featured alongside such inspiring individuals!

"Every year the Jefferson Awards Foundation honors the top social entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the nation with this gala," said Hillary Schafer, Executive Director of The Jefferson Awards. "It is an honor to have so many individuals from all walks of life dedicated to public service attending our event to be recognized for their continued achievements."

Olivia Wittels

Marketing Coordinator
December 9, 2014

PoP & lokai team up to build schools in Ghana

The holidays are often used as a time for reflection. We tend to think about all the good and exciting events that have happened to us this year ($2 million raised at the 2014 PoP Gala, anyone?!), as well as the moments that may have been more difficult and challenging.

With that said, we are so excited to be partnering up with lokai for our annual Season of Promise campaign. A few years ago, lokai founder Steven Izen was moved by the duality of experiencing great sadness at his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis while at the same time feeling immense gratitude for where he was in his own life. This combination of emotions served as the inspiration for the lokai bracelet, which encourages one to be humble through the highs and hopeful through the lows. The black bead of the bracelet holds mud from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, while the white bead contains water from Mt. Everest, representing the highest.

Lokai’s message of hope aligns with our own core mantra at PoP – that everyone, no matter where you are born or what your circumstances are, has promise. This holiday season, we’ve set a goal to build 25 schools in Ghana, and lokai is helping to make this a reality.


On December 1, Cyber Monday, we teamed up with lokai for the first of two exciting social media initiatives. For every bracelet sold that day, lokai donated $10 to PoP. With both organizations reaching out to their respective followers, in just one day we raised $25,000, enough to build a school in Ghana!

If that wasn’t exciting enough, we followed up Cyber Monday with another incredibly successful call to action. Instead of asking our respective followers to donate financially, on December 2, Giving Tuesday, lokai and PoP asked supporters to use their voices to give back. PoP tweeted:

GT 47K tweet

With this initiative and support from some awesome influencers (Rixton, Val Chmerkovskiy, Madison Beer, Brent Rivera, and more) we received 47,000 retweets – PoP’s highest engaged tweet EVER!

On Giving Tuesday, lokai also took to Instagram to ask supporters to #SharePromise in a more visual manner. For every person who posted a picture of someone who believed in his or her promise during the highs and lows using the hashtag #SharePromise, lokai donated $5 towards building a school in Ghana. Over 350 people posted on Instagram using the hashtag, making Giving Tuesday a huge success!

We have some more exciting initiatives with lokai coming up at the end of December, during which you can help PoP reach its goal of building 25 (and hopefully more) schools for students in Ghana. Stay humble, stay hopeful, and join us in unlocking the potential of Ghanaian students this holiday season!

Olivia Wittels

Marketing Coordinator
October 24, 2014

Everyone has promise: PoP Gala 2014

“From a Rwandan Dump to the Halls of Harvard.”

This was the headline of an article featured on the front page of the October 23, 2014 issue of the New York Times. Published just a few hours after the most successful gala in Pencils of Promise history, the article – which describes how Justus Uwayesu, a Rwandan orphan formerly living in a garbage dump, was able to enroll in Harvard this past fall – epitomizes everything that PoP represents in the countries we currently work in, Laos, Guatemala and Ghana. It would be an understatement to say that Uwayesu embodies the calling card of this organization: that everyone, no matter where you are born, has promise.

The fourth annual PoP gala celebrated the generosity and dedication of three of PoP’s most vocal and vital supporters, actress and activist Sophia Bush, CEO of VaynerMedia, Gary Vaynerchuk, and CMO of SB Projects, Brad Haugen. Hosted by PoP founder Adam Braun, the night featured a myriad of inspiring speeches – like that of PoP’s Ghana country director Freeman Gobah, who invited every guest to his home country to see the impact of their donations firsthand – and videos, including the debut of PoP’s new “Everyone Has Promise” video.

Vaynerchuk stressed that as an immigrant to the United States, it was pure circumstance and fortune that allowed him to rise to a place in life that he deemed “ridiculously lucky.” He emphasized that everyone in the room was in a position to make a difference, no matter how big or small, before handing off the microphone to auctioneer CK Swett, who jokingly encouraged attendees to finish their drinks and raise their extra large pencils high in the air for the live auction.

The first item to be auctioned off, a wine tasting with Vaynerchuk, made it clear that guests had indeed heeded Adam’s request in his opening speech. Just as an education can change the way in which a child views his or her future, Braun called upon gala attendees to alter their own perceptions of themselves – whatever their occupation, he encouraged everyone to become a philanthropist for the night. The wine tasting prize was ultimately split between three bidders for $30,000 each, setting the tone for the remainder of the auction, which included private lessons with a Dancing With the Stars professional, a Shania Twain VIP experience, an Elton John VIP experience, and an opportunity to meet Sophia Bush.

The final item (a surprise!) featured a spinning lesson from world-renown DJ Martin Garrix. The item was even more special because Garrix was actually a PoP gala attendee. During the bidding process, he spontaneously added to his original prize, offering another spinning lesson and VIP access at the exclusive nightclub Hakkasan in Las Vegas. Needless to say, Garrix’s smiling presence on stage helped make this one of the most popular items of the auction.

After all of the prize items were auctioned off, CK Swett led the crowd into the Fund-a-Need portion of the night, where guests were encouraged to donate at any level. Two individual $100,000 donations kicked off the fundraising, which in about ten minutes raised an additional half million dollars for PoP. This was an astonishing and incredibly exciting feat, and a true testament to the generosity of the 750 guests who filled the tables at Ciprani Wall Street.

In a fitting introduction to Brad’s closing speech, Adam remembered that five years ago he and Haugen had attended a PoP event at the same venue, but under very different circumstances. Half a decade ago, they were placed in a library off to the side of the building, and the event was attended by a grand total of nine PoP supporters. But that same night, Adam recalled, he and Brad had looked out at the enormous main hall together, and said that one day they were going to fill it – a dream that ultimately came to fruition at the 2014 gala.

Brad explained how merely hearing about Adam’s first build five years ago reignited his own passion for giving back, which propelled him to seek out ways to become involved with PoP. In his speech, Haugen read aloud his first email to Adam, where he requested to help build a school in any way possible. Now the chairman of the Board of Directors of an organization that has built over 250 schools, the standing ovation that Haugen received at the end of his speech was only fitting for someone who is endlessly driven towards bringing innovative and life-altering education to children all across the world.

At the PoP gala just one year ago, we honored Malala Yousafzai, who was recently named a 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shot in the head for being an educational activist, Malala’s incredible life reveals that if given a chance, anyone is capable of receiving one of the most premiere prizes in the entire world. While education unquestionably provides the groundwork for transformative stories like that of Malala’s, or that of Justus Uwayesu’s, it is also transformative on a smaller – but equally effective and as important – scale.

Take Nuth, for example. At this year’s gala, Adam shared recent pictures of Nuth and referred to video he took of her years ago in which he professed that she would be PoP’s first student. Today, Nuth is in fourth grade and wants to be a doctor or a nurse, a career that would have been all but impossible, and also inconceivable for a four-year-old child in rural Laos who had never set foot in a school. Nuth is only one of the 30,000 children PoP has impacted thus far, just one representative of the fact that education is perhaps the most powerful tool to alter the course of a child’s life.

On October 22nd, 750 members of the PoP family gathered for a night of impact. Together, we raised over two million dollars to bring education to our students in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Everyone has promise, and as last night’s gala demonstrated, there are hundreds of people who believe that not to be overzealous jargon, but legitimate truth. PoP won’t stop until that conviction becomes reality, for we are committed to the principle that education is an inherent, inalienable and achievable right, for every one, everywhere.


Olivia Wittels

Marketing Coordinator