Building the foundation of a school–and a marriage–on Trek with buildOn

Mallory Foster and Zach Wendel met at work shortly after college in a small city outside Houston, Texas. Zach was moving to a new role in a different part of town, but was asked to onboard a new employee before he left. That employee was Mallory. 

“Looking back, it was a bit serendipitous,” Mallory says. “We stayed in touch after that, and had common friend groups. After just a month, we started dating, and the rest was history.”

Eventually, Mallory and Zach were engaged and immediately started looking for a nonprofit or service organization that they could support, either financially or with their time. “We did some local volunteering, which we loved, but still wanted to find something that made a bigger impact,” says Mallory. “Maybe it’s because we’re both engineers, but we kept reflecting on the fact that a dollar could do more good in some areas than others.”

That’s when they began exploring the idea of supporting education. “Education is one of those things that has compounding returns. It benefits the student, their family, and the community,” says Mallory. “Learning begets learning, and access to education empowers an entire community, putting their future in their own hands.” 

Set on their goal to financially support a school, and committed to finding a reputable organization that would put their money to good use, Mallory was grateful to find buildOn. “We loved the idea, loved the mission, and soon found that we loved the people working at the organization,” she recalls. “We loved the focus on equal opportunities for both boys and girls.” 

They were particularly excited about the opportunity to visit the communities buildOn serves through a program called Trek–an immersive experience where you travel to a buildOn partner country, live and work side-by-side with community members to construct a school, and immerse in the local culture. 

Soon after, Mallory and Zach started fundraising to build a school at the same time they were planning their wedding. And they decided to use their registry as a place where their friends and family could donate to buildOn. “We love our kitchen gadgets, but it’s way more satisfying seeing the wedding registry grow with donations for children’s education,” says Mallory. 

That’s when it all came together. Instead of a traditional honeymoon, Mallory and Zach would celebrate their new marriage by constructing a school with buildOn in Malawi. “It’s daunting traveling halfway across the world to stay a week with a host family and community you’ve never met,” says Zach. “But what better way to spend time with your new spouse?”

The couple says it was an incredible bonding experience, and that they learned as much about themselves as they did each other. Although they had both traveled the world a bit at this point in their lives, Zach says there was no doubt the Trek was outside their comfort zone and “like nothing we had ever done before.” 

And it wasn’t just the big things–a new country, new culture, and new language. It was the small things too, from finding new ways to shower, new noises at night, new activities during the day (and the blisters to prove it). They say these shared experiences during Trek helped lay the foundation for the relationship they have today, 10 years later. 

Since Mallory and Zach’s honeymoon in 2014, they’ve participated in two additional Treks––to Haiti and Nicaragua. Mallory remembers witnessing the joy and excitement of the parents and grandparents as they watched the groundbreaking of a new school for their children–and this just reinforced their commitment to buildOn’s mission. Since then, they’ve also begun supporting buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program which gives parents, grandparents, and other adult community members the foundational skills they need to build a better life for themselves and their families. This includes literacy, basic math and numeracy, family planning, income generation, and much more.

Today, Mallory and Zach have two daughters, aged four and two years old. Mallory says they’re not quite ready to travel those distances, but “…we already dream about the day we can take them on Trek with buildOn and to instill the concept of serving others, of the importance of education and the empowerment it provides, the knowledge that they are well educated, well fed, and well clothed because of the ‘luck of the draw,’ and that everyone is worthy of the same benefits they have.”

To learn more about buildOn’s Trek program and see if it’s a fit for you and your family, visit