When the final bell rings after a long day of classes, Yoalix Melendez heads straight for the door, but she’s not headed home. It’s a Tuesday in Chicago’s Lower West Side, and that means Yoalix is going to St. Pius Food Pantry with buildOn to serve those facing food insecurity in her community.
Yoalix is a junior at Benito Juarez Community Academy, and since walking through the doors to the food pantry for the first time in October of 2015, Yoalix has volunteered at St. Pius over thirty times. “I keep going back to St. Pius because helping people makes me feel like our presence matters,” Yoalix says. She’s volunteered at the pantry so often with buildOn that the pantry’s staff have asked her to come in on her own when they needed an extra hand.
The walk from Benito Juarez to St. Pius is only five minutes, and on this particular Tuesday traffic is heavy on Ashland Avenue, and the autumn sun casts severe shadows on this industrial corner of the city. When Yoalix and the other buildOn students arrive, more than forty people are standing outside the food pantry, waiting for it to open. On average, sixty-five families receive food from St. Pius each week.
“The first time I went there, I was surprised that there were so many people that needed food,” Yoalix says. In Chicago’s Lower West Side, it is estimated that over 5,000 people are food insecure, making Yoalix’s dedication to fighting hunger so important to her community.
Yoalix will admit that she can come off as reserved, but at St. Pius it’s hard to imagine her as anything but confident and composed. She knows where to go and what needs to be done without asking. Upon arriving, she quickly starts to unpack boxes of food—jars of peanut butter and cans of tomato sauce—and sets them out for the people who will be coming in shortly. As soon as she finishes unpacking, she walks into the pantry closet and starts rearranging the shelves and wiping away dust from the tops of boxes, pausing only to give guidance to buildOn students who are new to the pantry.
“I used to not be able to talk to people as much,” Yoalix says. “I used to struggle being able to communicate instructions and directions.” But that was before she found buildOn, before she began coming to St. Pius every Tuesday. Now, she has no trouble explaining to new students how they can best be of service.
But it’s not just that she feels more confident. Yoalix also feels more connected to her Chicago community. “We don’t only do service. We visit other parts of the city and learn about our own community. I feel really happy when I’m walking around my community and someone stops to say hi. It brightens my day to see someone who I know I’ve made an impact on.” It’s for this reason that buildOn feels like something larger than just another program at her high school.
“buildOn means family to me. buildOn means spreading joy.” And it’s clear that Yoalix means every word she says. After all, she started bringing her eleven-year-old sister with her to volunteer at the food pantry with buildOn over the summer. “Now, she’s always asking if she can come with me,” Yoalix says, proving that spreading compassion and service can inspire others to do the same.