Bronx Student Talks Africa Service Experience, Impact

By Matt Surrusco, YEZ Program Coordinator

Whether traveling to Africa, Central America or Asia, students who participate in the buildOn Trek for Knowledge Program leave the U.S. having done significant volunteer work in their local community. After spending two weeks in a developing country, they return home global citizens, having served others on an international scale by helping build a school in a village that previously had little to no access to quality education.

Christopher Taylor, a junior at Mott Hall Bronx High School, is one student who expanded his service credentials from local to global. He traveled to Malawi in February with 14 other Bronx high school students, a few buildOn coordinators and buildOn’s founder, president and CEO Jim Ziolkowski. Chris lived with a Malawian host family, participated in three hours of cultural activities daily and worked for three hours a day alongside buildOn students and community members. Each was committed to digging the foundation, mixing the cement and moving the bricks that become a new school for village children, parents and grandparents.

Pictured Above: Christopher Taylor, 16, from the Bronx, lifts up his host brother outside a buildOn school.

buildOn spoke with Chris recently about his Trek experience and the impact the international service trip had on him.

buildOn: What did your friends and family think when you told them you were going to Africa?

Christopher Taylor: They said, “You’re crazy. Watch out for the lions.” Monica [Christopher’s sister and legal guardian] said, “don’t drink the water over there.” One of my friends said, “You’re crazy. You’ll get eaten or killed.” Teachers said you’re going to have fun, and take pictures.

buildOn: Did you ever have second thoughts about going?

CT: No, I was just very excited to go. Time out of America. Time out of my life.

buildOn: What was your first impression of Malawi when you walked out of the airport with your fellow students?

CT: It was hot. So hot. It was shocking because I saw everybody looking at us. We were the outcasts, the outsiders. That was on the bus ride. But once we arrived in the village it was a totally different feeling. The villagers embraced us and showed us love.

buildOn: What was the most challenging experience you had?

CT: The first day of working. We had to dig holes. Dig deep into the ground to start the foundation of the school. It was a lot to do. I was extremely tired. I could barely breath. But I didn’t stop. I kept going because in my mind my three hours of hard labor each day, compared to the Malawians’ regular labor, was nothing.

buildOn: Did anything surprise you while you were in Africa?

CT: The kids. They had an old school right there in the village. Some kids who lived right next to it, they’d be on time everyday. Over here, every kid who lives right next to Mott Hall High School, they’ll come late just because they live right next to the school. And then the Malawian kids who live far from their school, two hours away, they’d still be on time, they’d be right there in school learning. It just shows they actually care. They value education.

buildOn: What do you think the long-term impact of this trip will be on you?

CT: It made me want to do better in life. It made me want to stop slacking, and get on board. Be where I should be at, not where I could be at.

buildOn: What’s similar about doing service locally and doing service in Africa?

CT: buildOn tries to help out anybody who needs help. It’s similar in Africa and the Bronx. For us to go over there, to Africa, they had to build thousands of bricks. And over here, for us to do a community service project, they have to arrange that, make sure everything is okay to do it. So it’s a commitment from the villagers in Malawi and a commitment from the Bronx for us to do something. We need to get the commitment from the community we serve.

buildOn: What do you want to be when you grow up?

CT: When people ask me what I want to be, I say I just want to help people. And I went to Africa, so a humanitarian, but I’m not too sure. I’m undecided, but it seems like it’s going in that direction.