buildOn Alumni Take the Lead on Ending Illiteracy

Last month, 13 buildOn alumni from across the U.S. came together to build a school in the small Senegalese community of Keur Mamadou Ndao. As high school students they contributed thousands of hours of service in their own neighborhoods and travelled with buildOn to construct schools in some of the economically poorest places in the world. Today, these passionate young adults are college students and working professionals, but despite the different paths their lives have taken they still have one thing in common: their passion for service and education.

“Everyone on the trek was really committed to buildOn and really passionate about buildOn’s mission and they’re also all doing amazing things with their lives that probably wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for buildOn,” says Bay Area alum, Antonia De Michiel. “Everyone–regardless of whatever profession they were in or wanted to go into–would say something like ‘I decided to become a nurse because I wanted to help others’ or ‘I want to be a police officer so that I can contribute to the community I grew up in.’ Everyone was very oriented towards service as a part of their personal identity and it was really cool to be a part of that energy for 10 days.”

Antonia (front row, far left) was one of 13 buildOn alumni to help build a school in Keur Mamadou Ndao, Senegal this past March.

Antonia’s service journey began back in 2005, during her freshman year of high school. “In elementary and middle school, I struggled with making friends and finding my niche,” recalls Antonia. “I was born with a neurological disorder called Cerebral Palsy, which affects the muscle function in my legs. Even though I was outspoken and social, other kids often found it challenging to relate to me because I was considered ‘different’. I still remember what it felt like to walk into my first buildOn meeting looking for a place to belong.”

It didn’t take long for Antonia to find a home with buildOn and soon she was spending her Saturdays serving food to unhoused people in the Tenderloin, playing bingo with senior citizens and mailing books to prison inmates. Inspired by older classmates talking about their experiences building schools, she joined her first buildOn Trek in 2008. On this trek Antonia and her peers travelled to Mali where they helped to construct a school in the small community of Kongolikoro. She didn’t realize it at the time, but that experience was to become the driving force that would propel her down a path of international service.

In 2008, Antonia travelled to Kongolikoro, Mali where she helped to construct the community’s first buildOn school.

“When I step back and reflect on the long-term impact this organization has had on my life, I think of buildOn as a catalyst. It ignited a passion for service that has oriented my entire life path. My involvement with buildOn gave me the tools to identify what lights me up the most and to kindle that fire in ways I could never have imagined possible as a teenager,” says Antonia. In the years since that initial Mali Trek, Antonia has studied abroad, helped to construct another buildOn school in Nicaragua, and even joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps where she lived in Chile for two years and worked at an immigrant rights nonprofit and in a soup kitchen.

“When I step back and reflect on the long-term impact this organization has had on my life, I think of buildOn as a catalyst. It ignited a passion for service that has oriented my entire life path.”

Antonia De Michiel

In March 2022, her journey came full circle and Antonia returned to West Africa to construct a new buildOn school in the village of Keur Mamadou Ndao. Here, Antonia and her fellow alumni worked side-by-side with the men and women of this small Senegalese community to build the school their children would one day attend. It was these relationships, and the passion and courage she saw, that got Antonia through the long days of making bricks in the sweltering heat. “Every day on the worksite the moms would say ‘education is the future’ and talk about how important it was to educate their children.” In addition to the amazing women she worked alongside, Antonia was especially inspired by a woman almost her own age named Fatou Faye, who lived in the nearby community of Nérane Diarrére.

Fatou was a recent graduate of buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program in Nérane Diarrére. As a girl, Fatou struggled to learn in conditions very similar to the ones experienced by the children of Keur Mamadou Ndao. She dropped out of school in third grade and, at age 12, left everything–and everyone–she knew to travel to the capital city of Dakar in search of work as a domestic servant. Scared and alone she eventually found a job working for a family as domestic servant and caretaker for their young children. In addition to cooking, cleaning, laundry, and running errands, Fatou also helped get their kindergarten-aged child ready for school each day. “I wished to be like that child who was going to school but I no longer had that opportunity,” remembers Fatou.

After two years of back-breaking labor, hunger, and verbal abuse Fatou decided it was time to return home. She took what little money she had been able to save and left for Nérane Diarrére where she eventually married and had two daughters of her own. Fatou never expected to return to the classroom, but then in 2016 buildOn constructed a school block in her community and the following year an Adult Literacy Program was launched. Through buildOn’s innovative Adult Literacy Program, Fatou and her classmates were taught to read and write in their first language of Serer, and learned basic math and business principals that could help them to lift their families out of extreme poverty.

Through their Adult Literacy Program, Fatou and her 62 classmates put their education into practice and started making soap and dying fabric that could be sold for income. They also started a Savings & Loan Group where women could take out loans for their own small businesses.  At their peak, Fatou and her peers had over CFA 5,000,000 (USD $8,320) in their account! The women used the money they earned to purchase a tent and chairs, which they rent out for special occasions in the community, as well as a grinding machine for millet. Each month they make roughly CFA 65,000 (USD $108) from the millet grinding machine which they then invest back in their community. In addition to helping their children with schools fees, in 2019, some of their profits were even used to purchase supplies for a second buildOn school block.

Support Antonia and the buildOn Alumni Trek Team as they fundraise for an Adult Literacy Program

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When Antonia and the buildOn alumni team met Fatou and the adult learners of Nérane Diarrére during a visit to their community, they were blown away by their passion and dedication and decided to make sure that other women and men could have these same opportunities to learn. The team created a fundraising page and they have already begun raising money to fund an Adult Literacy Program in Keur Mamadou Ndao, the same community where they helped to build a school. “We are committed to funding buildOn’s next Adult Literacy Program so that the women of Keur Mamadou Ndao have the opportunity to rise up out of illiteracy through learning to read and write,” says Antonia.

With her characteristic determination leading the way, we have no doubt that Antonia and her fellow buildOn alumni will continue to do great things in the fight to end poverty and illiteracy, and to provide equitable access to education for all.