Rahni Davis is a senior at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, New York. At her school 40% of students graduate in four years and 72% are chronically absent. The school was recently named one of 94 schools in New York City’s School Renewal Program as part of an aggressive improvement initiative for schools that have been consistently failing. Banana Kelly has had three different principals since 2012. Constant attempts to revitalize the school prove challenging and students might confront an entirely different school from one year to the next. But, Rahni has worked hard against all odds. Through buildOn, she’s completed over 250 hours of service and traveled to Malawi to break ground on a new primary school. In her own words, she describes how buildOn inspired her to create her own service project to tackle homelessness in her community and beyond.
I first heard about buildOn at a presentation for incoming freshman of Banana Kelly High School when I was in eighth grade. When two juniors talked about their amazing, once in a lifetime opportunities with buildOn, it blew my mind. From that day forward I knew I wanted to be part of buildOn because they gave students not only a voice, but a purpose. Throughout high school I’ve seen buildOn grow – and I grew right along with it.
It has been my dream since freshman year to advocate for buildOn’s movement, but I wanted find a unique way to do that. In October 2014, I told my program coordinator Joahan that I wanted to hold a buildOn fashion show. I didn’t act on it then but word got out about my idea and my program manager, Regina, suddenly reached out to make it a reality. I named my project Give to Glow. We usually have service projects like gardening and visiting nursing homes, but I wanted to connect service to fashion in some way since we never had before. Students think community service is boring or not for them but who doesn’t like their apparel? This was a very different approach to raising awareness.
buildOn students from the Bronx and Brooklyn, staff and special guests celebrate the project’s success.
Give to Glow was a fashion show and clothing drive that raised awareness for homelessness in New York City and the seven countries that buildOn builds schools in. The price of admission was to bring a decent article of clothing to donate. At the show, we modeled looks like casual and formal wear and brought the house down sporting buildOn t-shirts in the finale. We had several service projects before the event to redesign the shirts to include facts about homelessness on the back of the t-shirts.
The DJ, Michael Doucet, kept the our 60+ audience entertained with some of the latest hits. We also had a surprise guest! Actress Danielle Brooks, who plays “Taystee” from Orange is the New Black, came to support the show. I will never forget her words of encouragement. She told me to “Stay humble and stay headstrong. This is amazing what you’re doing, don’t let everything around you suck you in.” She is a role model to me and it is incredibly inspirational that she supports this movement.
buildOn students sort clothing donations after the event.
Another amazing addition was the help of buildOn supporter ModaVive, an online consignment shop that donates 60% of their proceeds back to various charities, one of them being buildOn. They donated boxes of clothing to be modeled for the show and sent Luna bars for people that were attending. We also got to give the donated clothes to the shelters after! When the event was over, we gathered for a huge group photo and then sorted the clothing for our service partners, the Mercy Center and Bronxworks, Inc.
A couple of months prior to this show, I started my own online thrift store. It really came together when people all over New York City asked me where I found my clothes. I’ve fallen in love and appreciate the little details of clothing, down to every stitch. Though its still fairly new, I have big goals for the profits of my business, one of them being to give back to a buildOn school. I have always tried to personalize my buildOn shirts with items like glitter, gems, or just a cut of seam. Many have been impressed and it allows me to enjoy service more.
Give to Glow was a wonderful accomplishment, especially because so many people believed in and supported my service project. buildOn has become my family over the years and I am still committed as a senior. Many students at Banana Kelly never knew that we could have this much of a voice by giving back to our community. Though I am in many extracurricular activities, buildOn is the only one to be constant in my life. I appreciate buildOn for its time, no judgement, and welcoming arms for making me who I am today.
My community, as New Yorkers, tends to forget what is around us. The fast life keeps us going. We never slow down to analyze the bigger issues. Through this project, I learned that homelessness is a reality. We bypass people everyday not knowing what one may be going through. I also learned that this is not just happening in one area. The very same effect homelessness has on communities in New York equates to the effects in a community in Mali or Haiti. We have to help people overcome this tragic lifestyle, since homelessness isn’t by choice.
Humbly, I appreciate this experience. I was actually afraid of homeless individuals at one point, but I decided to do something about it. After stepping back and really examining the statistics for myself, this service project began. I knew I couldn’t put these families or individuals into homes, but the first step is knowing the issue at hand and creating an idea to help. So Give to Glow was born. I wanted my classmates to put themselves in the shoes of a homeless person or family. I wanted them to realize the reality of homelessness, like I did, and figure out what they could do to help that also coincides with something they might be passionate about. I want them to stop making excuses like “it’s their choice to be homeless” or “it’s their fault that they’re homeless.” Do something about it. Everyone can help.
Photography by Dee Guerreros.