By Lisa Chamoff
Around the time shaggy-haired singer Justin Bieber became a pop sensation, Greenwich native Adam Braun was leaving his cushy consulting job to build a nonprofit from his New York City apartment.
Both of their careers have seen a similar rise.
Now Braun, whose older brother Scott "Scooter" Braun helped launch Bieber to worldwide stardom after discovering him on YouTube, has constructed nearly 40 schools in developing countries around the world through his organization, Pencils of Promise. He's hoping, with Bieber's help, to build more than a dozen more, and at the same time make some teenage girls' dreams come true.
In a major campaign that ends Thursday at midnight, Braun is asking people or groups to collect donations, with the top fundraiser winning a visit from Bieber to their school.
Braun -- who said the pop star is like a little brother to him, escaping Bieber mania at his parents' Greenwich home and even taking vacations with his family -- said Bieber is genuinely committed to the success of the nonprofit.
"Justin is one of the most talented and special people I've ever met in my life," said Braun, 27, who graduated from Greenwich High School in 2002. "What a lot of people don't realize is he's not part of Pencils of Promise because he's a celebrity. He's part of Pencils of Promise because he believes in creating good."
The story behind the creation of Braun's education-focused organization is almost as mythic as Bieber's rise to fame through YouTube, and similarly owes a lot to the power of the Web.
When Braun was a junior at Brown University, he backpacked around the world. Braun said he had a habit of asking the children he met what they wanted most in the world. He expected the kids to say they wanted an Xbox or an iPhone, and was surprised when one boy in India answered that he simply wanted "a pencil."
Braun, who said his parents always talked about the value of education, decided he wanted to find a way to give back. He opened an account at the Bank of America branch on Greenwich Avenue with $25, created a Facebook page and began hosting fund-raising parties.
Braun took a nine-month leave of absence from his job at consulting firm Bain & Company to open his first school, a preschool in Pha Theung, Laos. A short time later, he quit his job to focus entirely on the nonprofit. His goal is to build 100 schools by 2012.
Pencils of Promise has staff working in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and Braun said the roots of his organization are really in the communities there.
Though its headquarters is in New York City, Pencils of Promise also has a few other Greenwich ties. Brad Haugen, who graduated from GHS in 2000, is the organization's director of marketing, and Tom Casazzone, who graduated in 1999, is the director of legal affairs and finance.
Haugen, who left his job at the advertising agency BBH in April, said he was attracted to the organization's mission and Braun's enthusiasm.
"The beauty of it is it started with a lot of heart," said Haugen, who was friends with Braun while they were growing up, playing basketball together, and found out about the nonprofit through Facebook. "Coming from Greenwich " education is something a lot of people take for granted."
While providing the opportunity to meet Bieber is a great fund-raising incentive, Haugen said young people had expressed desire to help even before the campaign started.
"What we want to be is this coming generation's nonprofit," Haugen said. "Realistically, my feeling is that kids are looking for something to believe in, and we're trying to give that to them, and Justin is the way to open the door."
Even before he became a celebrity, Bieber was one of the first people to get involved with Pencils of Promise, Braun said. When Braun told Bieber he was leaving his full-time job to work on the organization, Bieber told him it was the right move.
"He said to me, 'I would love to be able to do that one day,'" Braun recalled.
It was on a recent family vacation to Africa that Braun and Bieber came up with the idea for the Schools 4 All contest. Naturally, they posted a video to YouTube to promote it, and Twitter has also played a role.
The campaign has already raised more than $200,000, which Braun said could build 11 schools.
While the deadline is approaching, Braun said that shouldn't stop someone from getting involved at www.schools4all.org. The current leader has so far raised more than $20,800.
Bieber was spotted recently at Garden Catering on Sound Beach Avenue, grabbing a "high school special" with the Braun family. Maybe the next Bieber sighting will be at a Greenwich school.