Gil De Jesus, a buildOn student at Mott Hall Bronx High School, recently shared his story at the 2017 buildOn Gala in New York City. Halfway through his senior year of high school, Gil has already served more than 450 hours with buildOn and traveled to Senegal to build a school on Trek.
When I tell people that I’m from the Bronx, I know what they think. People think that the Bronx is full of drugs and crime, and they always expect the worst of young people like me. It’s like the Bronx is the forgotten borough, and people don’t really know that much about it.
I’m proud of the fact that I live in the Bronx. I’m proud that I’m getting my education in the Bronx. I take pride in saying that I’m a Dominican immigrant. Just because there is not a lot expected of people who fit my demographic doesn’t mean that I can’t have high expectations for myself.
I’m proud of the fact that I live in the Bronx. I’m proud that I’m getting my education in the Bronx. I take pride in saying that I’m a Dominican immigrant.
I moved to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic when I was six years old with my younger brother and both my parents. My family moved here because my dad wanted my brother and I to get the best education that we could.
Above: During his junior year of high school, Gil went on Trek with buildOn to build a school in Senegal. From the people he met while on Trek, Gil learned lessons that have impacted the way he thinks about life.
I was always motivated to serve by my parents. My dad’s philosophy is that it doesn’t matter how little you have, you can always give something. Ever since I was little, I wanted to make a change, but I didn’t know how. I thought that you had to be an adult to make a difference. But then I started high school at Mott Hall, and I joined buildOn, and I learned that I have the power to make a difference right now. So I started serving, and I brought my brother with me to serve, too, even though he was in middle school at the time.
Just because there is not a lot expected of people who fit my demographic doesn’t mean that I can’t have high expectations for myself.
My favorite service project is at the Holy Tabernacle Soup Kitchen in the South Bronx. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the clients there. There was one man who would come into the soup kitchen and he was very friendly, but he was also kind of sneaky. He’d say, “Hey, we’re supposed to get two or three of these cans.” I’d look at him and say, “No, you’re not. You know you’re supposed to get only one.” He would always push it, but in a playful way. Then, he’d give me a smile and laugh and just move along. It became a routine between us, it was like his trademark.
Above: Gil hands out food at a food pantry in the South Bronx. Throughout high school, Gil has dedicated himself to serving more than 450 hours with buildOn. (Photo Credit: Tara Rice)
But then he stopped coming. And I worried about what happened to him. One day, my brother and I were on the bus and we saw him. We asked him how he was doing and he told us that he was doing a lot better, that he got a job, that he got a place to live, that he was making enough to feed himself. It made me so happy that I could be a part of helping him get back on his feet. It made me realize that the people I was affecting…they’re just regular people. They’re just trying to live a normal life. I live in the Bronx, so helping Bronx residents is really important to me. Seeing that someone is doing better, that they don’t have the same problems that they once did, that really brings a smile to my face.
Seeing that someone is doing better, that they don’t have the same problems that they once did, that really brings a smile to my face.
One of the great things about buildOn is that it showed me that I could make a difference in the Bronx and in another country. Last year, I went to Senegal to build a school on Trek. In Senegal, I lived with a host family, and I became really close with my youngest host sister Aissatou. She’d go with me everywhere—she never left me alone.
Above: Gil and his host sister Aissatou formed a strong bond during his time in Senegal. (Photo Credit: Braulio Acuria)
I had another host sister named Seynabou who was older, closer to my age. She woke up at 5:30 each morning and left, and I never saw her till late at night. One day I asked where she was going and found out that she was walking all the way to the city to go to school.
When she said that, I realized the school we were building was going to make it so that my younger host sister never had to walk to another town for school. That’s an overwhelming thought—I’m not even an adult yet and I’m contributing to the education of a child.
…I realized the school we were building was going to make it so that my younger host sister never had to walk to another town for school.
That story about my older host sister Seynabou also taught me never to settle. She could have settled and given up on school. But she had the motivation for more, and she will use that education to help others by becoming a teacher. In my life, it starts with me being greedy about my education too. I’m a student in the South Bronx and that demoralizes a lot of students because they feel that because of where they’re from, college isn’t a possibility for them. They don’t think they’re good enough. But I know now that I’m never going to settle.
Above: Gil and the rest of the Trek team take a picture with community members in Senegal at the end of Trek.
Yes, I can be grateful for what I have, but that does not mean that I should only accept what I already have. I know that there’s a lot more out there for me. I’m on pace to be at the top of my class at Mott Hall and the first in my family to go to college.
Yes, I can be grateful for what I have, but that does not mean that I should only accept what I already have. I know that there’s a lot more out there for me.
My host sister taught me never to settle, and I’m not going to. That’s why I applied early decision to Columbia University, and I recently found out that I was accepted. Come the fall, I will be attending Columbia.
After college, I want to go to law school and become a public defender so that I can continue to give back. buildOn showed me that I have the power to make a difference in people’s lives now, and I want to continue to make an impact for the rest of my life. buildOn put me on the path to do that, and I now know there is so much I’ll be able to give.
Below: Gil shared his story of service at the 2017 buildOn Gala at the Javits Center in New York City.