These buildOn Students Have Surpassed 400 Hours of Service

A huge congratulations to these 15 students who have surpassed 400 hours of service with buildOn. By cooking meals for the homeless, spending quality time with seniors and mentoring young children, these dedicated students are changing their communities for the better. They have stayed late to volunteer after school, woken up early on Saturdays in order to serve and given the very best of themselves to transform their schools and communities. Together, they have devoted well over 6,000 hours to breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations!

Olmo “Sebastian” Merino

11th Grade, Schurz High School, Chicago

When Sebastian found out he reached over 400 hours of service with buildOn, he was surprised. He was too busy having fun helping others. “It’s what I live for,” Sebastian says. “It’s my inspiration.”

Sebastian is an avid artist who is equally passionate about, as he puts it, “helping others, promoting peace, and spreading love and joy through service.” He first joined buildOn at the beginning of his sophomore year, and ever since then, he’s been participating almost every day. Now a junior, he says he’s no longer shy, can speak more confidently with adults, and isn’t as intimidated by speaking in front of large audiences thanks to his service with buildOn. “It’s a fun program where you can express yourself and not worry about what others think,” he says.

Not only is buildOn helping Sebastian make an impact on his community—he’s learning about the issues facing people around the world. He thinks his fellow students would benefit from all of the information that buildOn has to offer, and he’s committed to helping the program grow. “It’s a great way to show how much you care about others,” says Sebastian. “I think a lot of people would enjoy that. They don’t know that they care, but they actually do deep down.”

Dana Romero

11th Grade, Schurz High School, Chicago

buildOn was the very first activity Dana joined in high school during her freshman year. Since then, she hasn’t stopped. By giving back to her community, she says she gets to feel something many people don’t often experience—the pure happiness and pride that comes from a selfless act.

Over the past few years, one of her favorite service projects has been with Cornerstone, a homeless shelter that provides food and clothing to people in need. “When we go to that project, I always love to interact with the people there,” Dana says. “Two of the individuals there now know me by name. We encourage each other and it is so nice to know that I have made an impact on their lives.”

Before buildOn, Dana was very shy. But through her service, she’s moved out of her comfort zone, talking and interacting with new people through new experiences. And she says it feels good to know that she’s helping to combat the problems in her community rather than just standing by and watching.

“It’s worth every minute you put into it,” Dana says. “How buildOn makes you feel at the end of the day is better than anything anyone could say about it.”

Savanah Wilbourn

12th Grade, Prosser Career Academy, Chicago

From the start, Trek was one of the main reasons Savanah wanted to get involved with buildOn. And despite the hot weather and hard work, her Trek to Burkina Faso in 2015 was her favorite memory to date because it made her realize how much she really loves helping others. “I got to challenge myself,” she says. “…Over there I didn’t have any help. It was all on me.”

When Savanah is with her friends at buildOn, she feels like she’s whole. “buildOn is another family. A place where I feel safe and can help other people,” she says. “It gives me an extra voice I didn’t know I had before.” In fact, Savanah hopes to become a Program Coordinator with buildOn one day. “It opens your eyes to show that there’s more out there than just the bad,” says Savanah. “buildOn puts a little light into the world.”

She wants her peers to know that buildOn is a fun place with fun activities that help you grow as a person. “buildOn helped me realize there’s more things to life than fun and games,” says Savanah. “There’s people out there that have it worse than me.”

Zulliet Cabrera Gomez

11th Grade, The Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice,
New York City

Zulliet first joined buildOn during her freshman year and was excited to experience and explore her city. “It helps us interact with our community, help others, makes me feel better, is another family, and it’s a safe environment,” says Zulliet. “buildOn teaches you what school can’t teach you.”

Thanks to buildOn, Zulliet says she’s more determined, hard-working, and stronger than she was before. She’s learned how to say “no” and knows how to stand up for herself now. “I’ve gone from being scared to more social,” says Zulliet. “I’m more open and friendly.” In addition to her work with buildOn, she’s actively involved in her school community as a Student Government Association member and she’s on the Honor Roll.

One of Zulliet’s favorite buildOn memories is meeting Diane at Mid-Bronx Senior Citizen Council. “She has given me so much information about life and knowledge,” she says. “… she made me feel welcomed…” She also loved the environmental project at Randall’s Island where she had the opportunity to meet new students and work with them as a team.

Zulliet thinks that buildOn is a great opportunity for students to learn how to live their lives to the fullest. “You’re able to get out of your comfort zone and learn new skills,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to understand life and how it works.”

Alyssa Chaiaroon

12th Grade, The Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice,
New York City

To Alyssa, buildOn means giving back to your community without expecting something in return. It’s about doing it because you want to do it.

Initially, Alyssa’s parents were really encouraging her to be active and take up a volunteer opportunity on the weekends. But ultimately, she continued with buildOn and achieved more than 400 hours of service because she genuinely liked the work and giving back to others.

One of her favorite service projects has been gardening in local parks where she gets to work outside and learn about different kinds of plants. She also loves buildOn’s team exercises and ice-breakers where she can meet new people and get to know them better.

buildOn has helped Alyssa grow and learn over the past few years. “Even though I’m a quiet and shy person, I like to accomplish my goals no matter what,” she says. “I get stuff done no matter what the challenges are.”

Alyssa wants to see more of her peers helping in their community, and she believes buildOn can help get them involved since there are so many different service projects to choose from. “buildOn is a fun activity and a way to interact with others and connect with other organizations,” says Alyssa.

Jade Cooper

12th Grade, The Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, New York City

“buildOn isn’t just a community service organization to me,” says Jade. “buildOn is about learning about other people and their lives. The ultimate lesson is that my life could be so much worse and I should be grateful for all of the things I have.”

One of Jade’s greatest memories with buildOn was during her time at Montefiore Children’s Hospital. More than having fun with the children and playing games, Jade enjoyed helping them to not focus on their illness for a little bit. Another one of her favorite service projects was serving hot meals at a local church around Thanksgiving and learning how many people struggle to eat every day.

Jade is concerned about the gangs and violence in her community and hopes buildOn can have a positive influence. She thinks that by giving youth the opportunity to be active and find what they’re passionate about, they’ll be able to do something positive with their time and stay out of trouble.

In addition to learning a lot and having new experiences, Jade made several lasting friendships during her 400+ service hours. “I met one of my closest friends through buildOn,” she says, “and people I hope will be lifelong friends.”

Naquia Dawson

12th Grade, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, New York City

Naquia joined buildOn in her sophomore year, and by the time she was entering her junior year, she was on a Trek to Nicaragua. Her favorite memory was the goodbye ceremony and singing “Lean on Me.”

Naquia loves to express herself through dance, and has been doing it for 10 years. She also teaches dance to middle school students, so she particularly loved buildOn’s service project this past February where she had the opportunity to teach dance to elementary school students. She appreciates the enthusiasm of buildOn’s coordinators and this, along with buildOn’s fun activities, are what have inspired her to complete more than 400 hours of service.

Naquia’s appreciation for buildOn goes beyond the service projects. In fact, her coordinator was there for her when her brother was away for a year in a drug rehabilitation program. “buildOn really means a lot to me because it’s like a second home,” says Naquia. “The coordinators are always close, I always make new friends, and I’m very social so it’s very easy for me to make friends and connections through buildOn.”

In addition to buildOn and dance, Naquia is active in volleyball, outdoor track, archery, a Beam Center internship, and an entrepreneur program. “I love meeting new people and trying new things,” she says.

Gil De Jesus

11th Grade, Mott Hall Bronx High School, New York City

Gil’s favorite buildOn memory was during his Trek in Senegal in February of 2017, when he was sitting on dried bricks, watching the buildOn Trek team face the community members in a game of soccer as the sun set. “That sight became the image that defined the trip for me as it embodied everything that this trip was for me—bonding with strangers, cultural appreciation, and beautiful views,” says Gil. “In addition to that, it was the moment in which my youngest host sister, Isatu, and I bonded the most as she sat on my lap and watched the game with me. It was a moment that helped me realize why it was that I cared so much about building the school.”

Gil is passionate about education because he sees it as a gateway to everything. “Ignorance can be your biggest enemy!” he says. He’s also passionate about his heritage. “The Dominican Republic has an amazing history of overcoming adversity and prospering,” says Gil. “I embody my culture and see it as a driving force to have a better life and make a difference.”

His favorite service project with buildOn has been an ongoing project with the Holy Tabernacle Soup Kitchen. He goes there every Tuesday afternoon to serve hot meals and provide pantry goods to nearly 100 people in the South Bronx. Gil has been going since 2014 and says, “I love going there because I get to see the same faces over and over. I love it because I get to interact with the same people every week and connect with them. But it also brings me joy when we don’t see our ‘regular customers’ because that means they don’t depend on the pantry as much anymore.”

Gil says that buildOn has helped him break stereotypes of what young Latino men can do. “buildOn enables me to do more than what is ‘expected’ of me,” he says. “Who else my age can say they’ve been to Africa and helped build a school?”

Luis De Jesus

10th Grade, Mott Hall Bronx High School, New York City

Luis attended his first service project in the 8th grade when he came with his older brother. Then as soon as he started high school, he officially joined buildOn and started volunteering regularly.

One of Luis’s favorite service projects is helping at the soup kitchen. buildOn is a source of happiness for him and a huge stress reliever. “If I’m ever feeling stressed or I feel like I’m not that good of a person or feeling down, I can go to a service project and prove to myself that I’m more than what I think I am,” he says.

Luis wants to change the way adults see kids and teenagers. “Society downgrades youth, but I feel like if we spread buildOn more and we get more people involved, it will show that we are contributing to society and we aren’t lazy,” he says. “The perspective people have of youth can change through buildOn.”

Before buildOn, Luis says he didn’t feel like he was a good person. But after volunteering and then going on Trek to Nicaragua in 2016, his image of himself started to change. “Once I did Trek with buildOn and experienced 11 days away from society and myself, I was able to learn who I really am and what I can do to help the rest of the world,” he says.

Anais Gonzalez

12th Grade, The Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice,
New York City

Reaching 400 service hours with buildOn was almost an accident, according to Anais. She attended her first buildOn event at a local senior center and from the start, fell in love with spending time with her friends while helping people in need. She never stopped participating in service projects, because she never wanted to; she was having too much fun. “It just kind of happened!” says Anais.

Anais particularly enjoyed serving at a local food pantry. She loved organizing the food and having the opportunity to provide sustenance to someone in need and their family. And one of her all-time favorite buildOn memories was when she and her fellow volunteers were recognized at Yankee Stadium and honored on the field for their efforts to promote recycling and sustainable practices in their communities.

In February of 2016, Anais went on Trek to Nicaragua and highly recommends the experience. “You have to see from a different perspective and understand things from the community’s point of view,” she says. “You can help incorporate how they deal with things into your own life.”

If Anais could change one thing about her school and her community, she would make people more empathetic towards each other and bring them closer together. “Not everyone has the same background … If someone joins buildOn, they can understand other people better,” says Anais. “When you help people out, you have the chance to get to know them better.”

Keith Jordan

12th Grade, Bronx Leadership Academy II, New York City

Keith has been serving with buildOn since 2013 and says that his favorite service project was at a soup kitchen. “I was feeding those who couldn’t afford to feed themselves,” he says, adding that he personally struggled with hunger in the past. “I love to help those who have been in the same situation I have been in.”

Not only does Keith have fun at every service project he attends, but each one motivates him to do the next. He says that some students might see buildOn as “boring” community service, but he wants them to know that it’s much more than that. “buildOn is extremely fun and you will get attached to it very quickly,” says Keith. “You will make new friends and feel a sense of community while helping other communities.”

In 2016, Keith had the opportunity to go on Trek to Nicaragua which he says was one of his all-time favorite buildOn memories. But more importantly, buildOn has helped him overcome having to be put in foster care. “It gave me an option to do something that I enjoyed while going through the crisis,” he says.

In addition to giving back to his community through buildOn, Keith is passionate about LGBTQ+ awareness and writing, and has contributed articles to his school newspaper.

Fantu Keita

10th Grade, Validus Preparatory Academy, New York City

Fantu’s friends were already involved with buildOn when they invited her to join in the 9th grade. Now she’s reached over 400 hours and loves giving back to her community. “To me, buildOn means helping others who need support or cannot gain what they need on their own,” says Fantu.

She particularly likes serving at KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now), an organization that provides free recreational opportunities to children and young adults with disabilities. “I like to play with the kids, especially to give their parents a break,” says Fantu. She adds that there is so much she and her friends can learn from the children there, and now she knows how important it is to never judge someone who is different from you.

Fantu loves taking pictures after every service project so she can remember what they did that day. “We make a lot of changes and big differences in our community,” she says. She’s particularly passionate about recycling and helping the environment. “I used to not care about where I threw my trash and recycling,” says Fantu. “After buildOn, I was more conscious of what I was doing, and made the change. I also taught my sisters to recycle.”

Lizbeth Loveraz

11th Grade, The Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice,
New York City

Lizbeth was shy and bullied before joining buildOn in her freshman year. Now in the 11th grade, she describes herself as “hardworking and committed” and aspires to become a lawyer one day. “Defending the rights of the people is what interests me,” she says.

While she was only required to complete 100 hours of service with buildOn, she kept going. “It was fun and I felt like I belonged,” says Lizbeth. “I wanted to challenge myself. I was doing something good.” Her favorite service project is KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) as she loves helping and playing with children with disabilities.

Lizbeth is also passionate about helping the homeless, particularly in her own community. “No one deserves to live their lives without having access to what they need in order to survive,” she says. “I think buildOn can be part of that change by providing toiletries and care packages for the homeless. We can also help the homeless get to shelters.”

As the Vice President of the buildOn Youth Leadership Board at her school, Lizbeth co-facilitates meetings and spreads the word about their service projects. What started out as a single volunteer opportunity at a local senior center has transformed into a way of life for Lizbeth. “I became part of buildOn,” she says. “buildOn became part of me.”

Milan Mackey

12th Grade, Bronx Leadership Academy I, New York City

“People are always going to need things, and that means service will always be needed,” says Milan who has been involved with buildOn for two years. She thinks that being able to give back to others in need is a gift, and she wants to keep helping as long as she can.

Milan’s favorite buildOn memory was during her Trek to Nicaragua in the winter of 2016. “It was an emotional experience,” she says. It required a lot of physical labor, which she enjoyed, especially because the local men were shocked at how hard she was working. Back at home, her favorite service project is with the Melrose Library in the South Bronx where high school students partner with elementary school students to help them with their schoolwork. She is extremely passionate about working with young children and hopes to study pediatric nursing in college.

“I used to be an introvert,” says Milan. “buildOn has helped me gain social skills and helped me to properly communicate with people. It’s helped me express myself more and now I’m more willing to try new things.” She admits she also used to be the type of person who would never want to do volunteer work. “Once I joined buildOn, it helped open up my mind about how everything I do can help create change in my school and in my community.”

Jesus Ramirez

10th Grade, Mott Hall Bronx High School, New York City

Jesus loves being outside, so his favorite buildOn service projects are anything outdoors, at local parks, and when he can help clean up the community. He’s already reached 400 hours of service, but he’s determined to reach 1,000 before he graduates.

One of his favorite buildOn memories was going to the Gala. He was one of only a select group of students invited and he says it was a lot of fun and an amazing experience. He says a lot of students just go home after school and he hopes they’ll be inspired by his involvement with buildOn and consider joining. “…it’s actually really fun,” he says. “…buildOn makes you feel good about yourself.”

Before buildOn, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors. “But once I was introduced to buildOn, I was eager for the next service project and would go to all of the after school projects,” he says. “I’m genuinely passionate about buildOn and what it’s doing right now. I feel really excited each time, because every day is different. Even if we go to the same project every week, each time is different.”

More than anything, Jesus thinks buildOn means helping people in need, because that’s what he does every time he goes out. He enjoys helping people who are struggling with food and money, and making his community a better place.

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