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Stuart Rogers will never forget the moment his life changed.
It was an evening in January 2016. Earlier that day, Rogers, a product and field marketing director for American Family Insurance in Madison, attended a company leadership meeting with some 200 colleagues.
A man named Adam Braun addressed the group. Braun founded an organization called Pencils of Promise, which builds schools in rural areas of Guatemala, Laos and Ghana. He had an inspiring story to share, starting with how, while backpacking in India, he asked a young boy begging in the streets what he wanted most in the world.
“A pencil,” the boy said.
The story resonated with Rogers and stayed in his mind. There was a social hour at day’s end, and Rogers approached Jack Salzwedel, the American Family CEO.
“We should build a school,” Rogers said.
Braun, who launched Pencils of Promise in 2008, noted that $25,000 could build a school in the developing world. (The cost has since risen to $35,000.)
“I said I’d love to support it,” Salzwedel says, recalling his reaction to the idea. To Rogers he said, “You spearhead it, and the company will match it. I asked if he’d be willing to pitch it to the whole group [the next morning]. And he did. He did it all.”
It was, Rogers thought later, “brilliant leadership” on the CEO’s part, and a life-changing moment for Rogers, who thought his suggestion might result in a committee being formed to discuss the idea.
Instead, it was up to him.
After an astonishing 28 hours in which the funds were raised, then matched by the company, Rogers led an unforgettable trip to Africa. It started an ongoing relationship with Pencils of Promise that took him last November to New York City, where he ran his first marathon and raised still more money for the organization.
It’s the kind of outcome that could give company meetings a good name.
Rogers, 38, has been with American Family in Madison for nearly six years. He was born in Michigan and at 12 moved with his family to the Indianapolis area.
Rogers attended Indiana State University, met his wife, Megan — they’ve been married 12 years, and have three sons — and worked for Nationwide Insurance in Ohio before joining American Family in 2012.
Rogers’ blue-collar parents believed in philanthropy. No matter how much or how little you have, they said, there’s a responsibility to give something back.
Rogers first heard about Pencils of Promise in 2014, prior to Braun’s Madison visit. He liked its grassroots approach and how the founder resisted the label “nonprofit.”
“He talks a lot about ‘for purpose,’ ” Rogers says of Braun, who calls Pencils a “for purpose” organization. “It has nothing to do with whether you generate an operating profit or not. It’s about making the world a better place.”
That evening in January 2016, Salzwedel said if Rogers could raise $25,000, American Family’s Dreams Foundation would match it. He also told Rogers he could have a few minutes at the start of the meeting’s second day to make his pitch.
That night, Rogers left a couple of voicemails at Pencils. He wanted to ask about setting up a fundraising campaign. Instead, he was able to accomplish it through the Pencils website.
The next morning, Rogers says, “I challenged the team.” He pointed out that if the 200 in attendance each gave $125, they’d have their school.
“All of a sudden, you’ve built something that will impact hundreds of kids for years to come.”
As the day progressed, donations poured in. Rogers grew wide-eyed checking them on his phone. The next day, a Pencils representative got in touch with Rogers asking how the organization could help.
“We’ve raised $28,000,” Rogers said.
“You seem to have figured it out,” was the response of the Pencils’ rep.
It was at an American Family marketing division meeting in April 2016 that Rogers learned the school would be built in Ghana, and that the company match would provide operating expenses for the school for three years.
Pencils provides an individual a trip to visit the site. Not only did American Family choose Rogers to go, they suggested — since the match allowed two spots — he take Megan.
They went to Ghana for five days in September 2016. There was a 10-hour flight from New York to Accra, then a three-hour bus ride on dirt roads. They saw where their school would be built, and they helped build a school in another village.
“The whole community was there,” Rogers says. “Moms and dads moving bricks and dirt, older kids watching the younger kids.”
The American Family school in the community of Adaklu Avelebe was constructed in late 2016, complete with three classrooms, desks and chairs, four latrines and a handwashing station.
“At a [later] leadership conference, Stu was able to show us pictures from his trip and the impact it had on his life,” Salzwedel says. “That was really cool. It brought it full circle. It’s a tribute to him, and, I think, the company — our commitment to community investment and our people who buy into and believe in it.”
Last fall, Pencils reached out to Rogers, saying the organization had some spots in the New York City Marathon for runners who wanted to raise funds. Megan had run marathons; Stuart had done a half marathon. The race was last November. Stuart and Megan crossed the finish line hand in hand, raising around $14,000 in the process.
It won’t be their last such adventure. Mark it down in pencil.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine.
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