“No one in my family ever made it to graduation. Not my mother, my father, grandmother, grandfather, my older brother. Nobody.”
As he finishes his senior year at Central High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Jamil Harp is determined to become the first in his family to step onto the graduation stage to receive his diploma. He credits this determination to succeed to his experience serving with buildOn, while seeing his mother struggle without a high school degree.
“I had my first child at 17,” Jamil’s mother, Millie, says. “I had no one to watch him, so I left school to care for him. I got my own apartment at 18 and entered the workforce… I’ve been unemployed for four years and nervous about re-entering the workforce without a high school education. Jamil was my shining light. He learned the value of education through his involvement in buildOn and he pushed me to give myself a second chance.”
But Jamil didn’t always see himself the ‘shining light’ his mom sees today. As he began high school he took his education for granted and was dangerously close to following in his family members’ footsteps.
“I was never in class, so there is no way I would have ever volunteered (or graduated),” Jamil admits. “In 10th grade a friend dragged me along to a buildOn program meeting and I liked it, so I signed up for the service project happening that Saturday. When I showed up to service I knew that I fit really well there. I realized I had always been capable of doing positive things like volunteering, but I never had anyone to push me to do that. I’ve always been a leader, and once I was in buildOn, an environment where my voice was being heard, it made me speak louder and louder, realizing what I was capable of.”
But Millie was skeptical and needed some convincing. “I wasn’t sure what he was getting into at first,” she says. “I was his buildOn taxi driver, shuttling him and other students back and forth to service projects. I saw Jamil changing for the better.”
“When you go to service and you are able to put a smile on someone else’s face, you realize how much you are capable of doing.” – Millie Harp
Curious about what her son was getting into, Millie decided to see for herself by joining Jamil at buildOn service projects. It didn’t take long for her to get hooked, too. “buildOn wakes something up in these kids,” she says. “When you go to service and you are able to put a smile on someone else’s face, you realize how much you are capable of doing,” Millie says.
She began to attend any service project she could, her favorites being community clothing drives and food pantries. Millie even got Jamil’s younger siblings involved. “Jamil began to spend a lot of time out of the house serving others,” she says. “I wanted them to see first hand what their brother is doing for our community. When they understand what Jamil stands for, it becomes a part of who they are as well.”
Millie knew buildOn had truly changed her son one day in 2015 when he told her about a new opportunity to serve. “I knew Jamil had become a different person when he asked to go on Trek to Malawi with buildOn. Yes, that was my hardest moment, allowing him to travel to Africa to build a school,” she confesses, though she ultimately agreed to let Jamil go, and is extremely happy for the knowledge and experiences he gained.
During his Trek for Knowledge, Jamil and other buildOn students lived with and served alongside a local community in one of the world’s economically poorest countries. The students and villagers worked tirelessly to lay the foundation for a primary school that today is bringing education to hundreds of students in a country with one of the world’s lowest percentages of the population who can read and write. It was an eye-opening experience that would change Jamil’s life.
“I realized what an impact the buildOn primary school would have on their village and when I returned home to Connecticut I bluntly saw the value of education.” – Jamil Harp
“My host family was so kind and generous to me,” Jamil reflects. “I learned that my host mother had left school after third grade and my host father had left school after fourth grade. My host sister also dropped out of primary school because of the long distance she had to walk daily to attend school. I asked my host mother if she would re-enroll in school if given the opportunity. She began to cry and told me yes, she would love to re-enroll in school. Her tears triggered my tears and soon we were crying and hugging and talking about our futures. I realized what an impact the buildOn primary school would have on their village and when I returned home to Connecticut I bluntly saw the value of education… I realized what was important in life, and what can never be taken away from you: your education.”
When Jamil returned from Malawi, he knew he didn’t just want to graduate high school, he wanted to go to college, too. He got to work filling out applications and realized the time was also right for his mother to further her education.
“While I was going through the college application process we talked a lot about (my mom’s) future,” Jamil says. “We discussed that going back to school could change her life. She felt too old and too burdened to go back to school, and I told her about a 75-year-old woman I met in Malawi who had just learned how to write her name through buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program. I said if a 75-year-old woman could go back to school, anyone can. I knew that she wanted this for herself, so I pushed her towards it.”
Inspired and encouraged by her son, Millie enrolled in a local GED program for women through Mercy Learning Center and she became enamored with learning. “The passion of the teachers and other students affected me greatly,” she says. “I knew they all had a story and we were all there for the same purpose: to learn. We were serious about our education.”
Is Jamil disappointed his mother beat him to the finish line for receiving a high school diploma? “Are you kidding?! I’m so proud of her, I’m happy she beat me to it!” he exclaims, his voice brimming with pride and excitement.
Millie is furthering her education as well, and is waiting on grants to help pay for her education expenses. “We’ll both be going to college this fall,” she says, as proud smile appears on her face.