“When I first thought about community service, it seemed like a waste of time,” Benjamin Pablo remembers.
That was back in 2012, when the Oakland High senior was beginning high school and couldn’t imagine himself spending even a single hour volunteering. But today Ben is finishing high school having given more than 1,000 hours of service to his Bay Area community – a milestone even the most dedicated buildOn students rarely achieve. This service superstar has done everything from feeding the homeless, to mentoring children, to building a school in Haiti. Today, he has a completely different perspective on the value service.
“Working with and meeting new people in your community is just fun!” Ben says. “Seeing other people smile is what makes me happy.”
So how did a young man who thought service would be ‘boring’ end up making such a significant impact on his community? Ben’s wasn’t exactly a straight path to a life of service. His journey started back in 2001, when his family left their home in Guatemala to look for a better life in California. Like many new immigrants, Ben’s parents found that their new life came at a cost, working long hours outside their home just so the family could get by.
“Working with and meeting new people in your community is just fun! Seeing other people smile is what makes me happy.”
“I never really spent much time with my parents growing up because they worked and worked just for us to keep moving,” Ben recalls. “I’m proud to have my parents; however, not having them around me I always felt a bit lonely.”
That loneliness followed Ben to middle school where he sometimes struggled to make new friends. So when a group of boys from school showed interest in hanging out, Ben was eager to join them.
“With these kids I felt accepted. I felt wanted and I had place where I belonged and for me it was a second family. Unfortunately, this group was a gang,” Ben says. “My life turned around. I didn’t do much work and would get in trouble. As the days went by I started realizing my wrongs. I wasn’t very happy. I had fun and all but it just didn’t seem right.”
As middle school came to an end, Ben found it difficult to escape from this troubled lifestyle and decided he needed to make a change. He enrolled at Oakland High School, far from his old school, where his old friends wouldn’t be around. But getting a fresh start wasn’t so easy and Ben struggled his first year of high school.
“I was looking for a fresh start and unfortunately I did not get it,” Ben says. “I was not doing my work. I didn’t care. I was looking at dropping out.”
Fortunately, after some urging, an older classmate finally convinced Ben to come join him at his first buildOn service project.
“On that day I saw so many smiles and it wasn’t hard to talk and enjoy yourself with people you don’t really know,” Ben remembers. “And that lit up a fire inside of me… I started going to more projects and learning more about my community. It made me interested in things and started becoming better in school.”
That fire inside would light a path of service that took Ben all the way from the Bay Area to Haiti, where he helped build a school in the summer of 2015 as part of buildOn’s Trek for Knowledge program. Living and working in a rural Haitian village, Ben saw similarities to the struggles his own family faced back in Guatemala.
“Unfortunately, my parents didn’t get to finish high school, or even elementary school. They lived in a far away village and they had to work,” Ben says. “Knowing I was able to build a school, it just gave me more reason to want to make an action and give opportunities to other kids out there… On trek, I felt like I was making more of an impact than I ever had before. I really liked getting my hands dirty.”
Back in home in Oakland, Ben was more determined than ever to become a buildOn service leader, but for him it was never about hitting some abstract number of service hours. Instead, Ben was motivated by a desire to create real change in his community.
“How can we change? Change is within ourselves and it’s up to us to make the positive change,” Ben says. “Don’t wait for change, or just pray for change, but be the change by doing good in the world.”
“Don’t wait for change, or just pray for change, but be the change by doing good in the world.”
Besides his school building trek, Ben’s favorite service projects are the ones when he gets to help feed hungry people in his community. He’s served at food pantries, community kitchens, and he and his buildOn classmates even make sandwiches and walk the streets looking for homeless people in need of a meal. Ben also enjoys the time he gets to spend mentoring and serving with younger kids, and does his best to help kids avoid the isolation he sometimes felt growing up.
“I try to get the kids to play together, even if they don’t want to,” Ben says. “Because that feeling of being alone isn’t that great. It’s a feeling you don’t want to have as a child. It impacts you through your life. You need a good start.”
Ben also has advice for other young people who want to change the world, but don’t know how to get started or how much impact they can make.
“There are a lot of ways of doing service. No matter where it is, the main point is that they’re making a change in the world around them,” Ben says. “They’re still helping in some way, and that’s all that matters.”
Over the course of an incredible 1,000 hours of service, Ben has made a positive impact on hundreds of lives, but he’s not done serving yet.
“There’s more to do, but this is just a start,” he says. “It’s just one step after another to make a difference.”
Congratulations Benjamin Pablo on 1,000 hours of service and the lasting change you’ve made in your community and our world!