When Carla Underwood tells you she’s from Detroit, she knows what you’re thinking. “Detroit really doesn’t look that good. There’s a lot of violence and gangs and drugs,” this 16-year-old from the city’s northwest side explains.
Like most Detroiters, Carla has seen firsthand the issues challenging her city: gang violence that keeps Detroit’s murder rate among the highest in the country, neighbors affected by the city shutting off water for those who can’t pay their bills, and education and transportation woes that have students like Carla traveling up to six hours a day, past blocks of abandoned houses, just to get to school.
“…sometimes I just didn’t really feel like waking up and going to the bus stop at 5:30 in the morning and sitting out there in the cold.”
“It’s really, really hard to get to school because our transportation system in Detroit is really unreliable,” explains Carla, a junior at Western International High School, a buildOn partner school. “The buses come late and sometimes they break down and don’t even show up. That really gave me a reason to not even try to go to school — sometimes I just didn’t really feel like waking up and going to the bus stop at 5:30 in the morning and sitting out there in the cold.”
Above: A Detroit resident since she was five years old, Carla takes pride in her city and has developed a fighting spirit that keeps her positive about the Detroit’s future.
Despite the hardships, Carla sees something in the city and its residents that outsiders don’t — a fighting spirit. “Even through all of (the challenges),” Carla says, “I feel like Detroiters are still strong, and we are still fighting for our rights and everything that we deserve. No matter what you throw at us, we just keep fighting.”
“buildOn really encourages us to stand up for what you think is right and fight for your education. If no one else is going to do it, then you have to do it. buildOn put the fight back in me.”
For Carla, it took serving her community with buildOn to wake up that spirit of resiliency in her. But before that, she was falling into a cycle that far too many Detroit youth get trapped in. “Before I went to buildOn, I was getting horrible grades, like D’s and F’s,” Carla remembers. “I thought, ‘Why does it matter? It’ll be alright. It will be fine. Who really wants to go to college?’”
But when Carla was given the opportunity to serve her community as a freshman, she saw a chance to be a part of a movement that could change her life and transform her city. “buildOn really encourages us to stand up for what you think is right and fight for your education. If no one else is going to do it, then you have to do it,” Carla says. “buildOn put the fight back in me.”
By the time Carla’s sophomore year rolled around, she was regularly serving afterschool and on weekends with buildOn at homeless shelters and food pantries, such as Mercado, a client choice food pantry at Detroit’s Ford Resource and Engagement Center. By serving at Mercado, Carla not only assists clients in picking out healthy food, she and her buildOn classmates are also leaving a positive impression on the staff. “Whenever I see young people volunteering I get really happy. If they start young they’ll continue to give back throughout their lives,” says Alma Perez, Food Pantry Coordinator. “They don’t get paid in cash but they’ve helped so many people and when those people leave with a smile on their face, when you know that they’re going to have something to eat at night, that’s the reward that (the students) get. The students at buildOn on do such an awesome job! They’re focused. They work hard. And the work they’re doing is so important.”
Above: Serving at Mercado, a client choice food pantry in Detroit, Carla helps volunteers to sort the shelves and clients pick out their food.
It was during the fall of her sophomore year that Carla went with buildOn to Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries to cook a Thanksgiving meal for the women and children spending the holidays at the shelter. There, Carla met a woman who was staying at the shelter while receiving treatment for an alcohol addiction. The woman opened up about her daughter who was upset with her because she couldn’t be at home while getting treatment. Carla called upon the sense of compassion she had fostered with buildOn and comforted her neighbor in need. “I told her that (people my age like her daughter) are kids and sometimes we only think for ourselves,” Carla remembers, reflecting on the the hour-long conversation that ended with her new friend thanking her over and over again.
“That was the first time I saw what an impact I had and that gave me hope. It really urged me to keep doing the things I was doing.”
“That moment (when she thanked me) really touched my heart because that’s when I saw my service actually doing something for someone,” Carla says. “That was the first time I saw what an impact I had and that gave me hope. It really urged me to keep doing the things I was doing.”
And with that, Carla decided to put service to her community at the center of her life. Like thousands of other buildOn students across the country, she found that her increasing her civic engagement made her more engaged at school as well. Her grades and attendance started to improve, but she still had a ways to go academically. And then, in the summer of 2016, something happened that shifted Carla’s entire worldview — she was selected to go on Trek with buildOn to construct a school in Haiti.
Above: Carla (wearing a blue shirt and kneeling in the front row) poses for a picture on the school building site in Haiti with the other buildOn students from Detroit.
Carla learned that, like Detroit, Haiti is a place that many have written off because of problems that seem too big and complex to solve. The economically poorest country in the West Hemisphere, 80 percent of Haiti’s population lives under the poverty line. Life in Haiti has also been made much more difficult by recent national disasters — a 7.0 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people in 2010, and Hurricane Matthew left hundreds of thousands of people in urgent need of food and shelter in October 2016.
“Trek made me realize that I need to at least try to get good grades because these people are working so hard for something that I always took for granted.”
But over the two weeks she and her classmates spent in the rural village of Lestage, living with and serving alongside local community members, Carla saw something different, and she had a revelation. “On Trek, I saw the whole community fight so hard for education, something that they really have to work for, and it’s just gifted to me. Trek made me realize that I need to at least try to get good grades because these people are working so hard for something that I always took for granted.”
When Carla returned to school in Detroit as a junior this past fall, she dedicated herself to her studies and made sure to wake up extra early to catch the bus to school. “When I got back to school, I tried so hard,” Carla says. “I never got all A’s before, but this is my first semester since going on the trip and I got all A’s and one B.”
Carla’s experience on Trek did more than reinvigorate her academically, it also reinforced that she has the power to change her own life and the lives of others. On the worksite in Lestage, Carla stood sweating in a line of Detroit students and villagers as they passed rocks to fill the school’s foundation, when she saw a young girl watching the line and eager to help. Rather than ignore the girl as others were doing, Carla took action — she invited the girl to join the service and watched as her face lit up. Carla gave her a chance to be of service when no one else would — just as she remembers buildOn doing for herself back in Detroit when she wanted to help but saw no way to really change her own community. Not long after Carla invited the young girl into the line and began passing her rocks, other members of the community followed suit.
“When they handed the first rock to her, her face — it just glowed so much. I was a little girl once and people used to underestimate me, and they thought that I couldn’t help,” says Carla, adding that the young girl ended up running to recruit other children to join the line. “I think that moment taught me that everything I do has an impact on someone. It showed me that whether I like it or not, I’m a role model and have to step up to the plate.”
Above: Since joining buildOn, Carla has served over 300 hours and seen a dramatic change in her grades at school.
Stepping up to the plate is exactly what Carla has done since returning from Haiti. On top of her academic achievements, Carla has contributed more than 300 hours of service through buildOn. She’s also speaking up about the issues that matter most to her. She jokes that she’s become an “activist gremlin” because, like the movie monsters who transformed from cute and cuddly to rabid and fearsome when they came in contact with water, exposure to injustice makes Carla fierce and tenacious. “I won’t turn evil, at least I don’t think,” she laughs. “But I’m really nice and everything until I see some type of injustice, and I just go for it. I speak up about it, and you can’t shut me up.”
“If it wasn’t for buildOn, I don’t think I would even have a chance at getting into college.”
As Carla looks to the future, she has big plans to continue to serve her community and make an impact on our world. She wants to become a U.S. Senator, but she knows that there is a lot to be done to make her dream come true. College, which once felt unattainable, is now in her future. “If it wasn’t for buildOn, I don’t think I would even have a chance at getting into college,” Carla says. “If I had not gone on Trek, I would probably just be going down the same path, just repeating myself, not really trying in school.”
But today, because of her buildOn experience, Carla sees service and education as the keys to changing her city, herself and her world for the better.
Below: Carla’s passion for service has inspired her friends. “She spends every second she can volunteering and doing things for the community,” says Shailee Gray, President of the buildOn Student Leadership Team at Western. “She really, really cares about the community, she’s a go-getter and she’s definitely a leader.”