As buildOn marks our 25th Anniversary of breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations, NBC’s TODAY Show visited us in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to tell the story of how service and education are changing lives in Bridgeport, across the U.S., and all over the world. Watch the TODAY Show segment and read more about Steve and Faby, two of the amazing buildOn students profiled on the show.
“I’ve given up on everything I’ve ever started,” Steve Nieves says. “Sports – I quit. Homework – I quit. When things got hard, my first instinct was to bail.”
Quitting was exactly what this 17-year-old from Bridgeport, Connecticut, had in mind when he started volunteering with buildOn. Teachers at Bassick High School thought a service learning program might help turn around his poor attendance, but Steve saw things differently. “I saw buildOn as just another ‘thing’ I was going to try and eventually quit–I was ready to give up before I even walked in the door,” he admits.
In Bridgeport, giving up is exactly what far too many young people are doing. The city’s 64 percent graduation rate falls well below national average, and despite sitting directly in one of America’s wealthiest areas, the city lags far behind on issues of crime and poverty.
Bridgeport’s poverty was a shock to Steve’s classmate, Faby Garcia, when her family first arrived in the city. “It is hard living here as immigrants – I was dreaming of a big house, a peaceful life, and having lots of friends,” Faby says. “But it was the total opposite – we were living in poverty.”
“I was dreaming of a big house, a peaceful life, and having lots of friends. But it was the total opposite – we were living in poverty.”
By the time she reached high school, the harsh realities of living in Bridgeport had hardened Faby, and like Steve, she felt apathetic about her school and her community. “You could say I wasn’t the ‘nicest’ of people,” Faby says. “I had a wall up, I didn’t enjoy school and I wasn’t social.”
But when one of her classmates convinced Faby to try serving her community with buildOn, something clicked inside of her. By serving Bridgeport’s most vulnerable, she realized that she was more fortunate than many and had a lot to give. “Service showed me that (my life) was better than living on the streets,” she says. “I have a roof on top of my head, a bed to sleep in, clothes on my back, and food on my plate. That’s more than many others.”
That realization motivated Faby to keep giving, and she started to see a change in herself, and in her community. “By joining buildOn I gained not only the tools to give back, but also to become a better person. Knowing that I can change my community by giving back to others is powerful, empowering, and important.”
Like Faby, Steve also started to see change in himself as soon as he began serving others, and to his surprise, he didn’t want to quit. He wanted to do more. “After my first project (rebuilding a local park), I did every service opportunity I could get my hands on,” Steve says. “Because of buildOn, I also started wanting to do well in school, and I started going back to class. It’s crazy. Service is contagious.”
“Because of buildOn, I also started wanting to do well in school, and I started going back to class. It’s crazy. Service is contagious.”
Steve and Faby aren’t the only buildOn students who have seen service lead to personal growth at school. Students who regularly serve with buildOn miss 2.1 times less school than their peers and 97% graduate from high school.
Steve’s newfound love of service only grew, and eventually took him all the way to Africa where he built a school in a rural village in Malawi with buildOn. “This trip was life changing,” Steve says. While in Malawi, Steve lived with a host family in their simple hut. “It put my whole life into perspective and made me realize how important family, service, and education is.”
Back at home in Bridgeport, Steve says his Trek to Malawi helped him to more clearly see the struggles of people in his own community, like the homeless veterans at Homes for the Brave. Since opening in July of 2002, the shelter has provided housing and service to help the homeless, with an emphasis on veterans. At Homes for the Brave, Steve serves by cooking dinner, and the connections he makes there are personally meaningful. The challenges of the veterans he’s met there hit close to home for Steve, who saw one of his best friends struggle emotionally and eventually drift away after he returned from military service.
“You know it is very hard to reach someone that doesn’t want to be reached – I tried,” Steve says. “Serving at Homes for the Brave is a way I can give back to vets in a way I couldn’t for my friend. I love being able to connect to the vets and simply listen to them talk. These are people who have served their country, risked their lives, and they deserve to be treated with respect when they come home. Homes for the Brave is a special place.”
Faby also sees buildOn as a way to make positive change on the issues that she sees all around her. “Two months ago I saw someone get gunned down in front of my very own house,” Faby says. “I didn’t know the person who died, but seeing that happen is not something that goes away. The memory sticks to your core and it is a reality that never leaves you.”
“What I would change most in my community is gun violence. That’s why I serve with buildOn.”
Before she joined buildOn, being exposed to gun violence might have made Faby feel powerless, but today she’s motivated to make a change. “What I would change most in my community is gun violence,” Faby says. “That’s why I serve with buildOn.”
Through their experiences serving, Steve and Faby have come to see themselves as part of the solution to the issues in their community, and they’re both hopeful for the future. Steve, who used to quit on his homework, is now hoping to continue his education in trade school. “I love working with my hands, and service showed me a passion I didn’t know I had,” Steve says.
Faby is also looking ahead. She has applied to go on Trek with buildOn and is starting to think about applying to colleges. “I want to be a doctor and am looking into medical schools,” she says. “Service and education are making my dreams a reality.”
TAKE ACTION today to support buildOn students across the globe:
- • Donate to support buildOn U.S. Service Learning Programs
- • Build a school with buildOn in a developing country
- • Join our email list to receive updates and learn more ways to take action