buildOn Employee of the Month Crystal Collins Inspires Teens to Inspire Each Other

“Crystal is just awesome,” says buildOn’s Program Director in Philadelphia, Joanna Branch. “She has, on more than one occasion, come into my office excited about cheers she’s created about buildOn.” Branch’s smile widens. “She always performs them for me.”

Crystal Collins, a youth service program coordinator from Philly, is buildOn’s Employee of the Month. She was hired a year and a half ago as a part-time employee, and came on fully in the spring of 2011. Since then, she has made invaluable contributions to our growing Philly youth service programs, planning countless projects, inspiring countless students, and approaching countless tasks with infectious effervescence.

Branch, in fact, has trouble summing up Collins’ achievements concisely, but usually starts by describing the many service projects she’s orchestrated, including the “Abolish the R Word” challenge. “After spending a day volunteering at the Special Olympics, Collins’ students learned about how hurtful the ‘r’ word is, and were challenged to bring the message back to their schools. The student enthusiasm surrounding this initiative has been outstanding. Some made T-Shirts, some made videos, some made stickers…. Crystal’s vision was key to allowing the student voices to shine.”

Programs like the above that combine activism and education are Collins’ metier. Once an anthropology major, she felt a passion for social change growing within her while studying abroad in Guatemala. “We had to go into ancient temples and learn about a lot of oppressive political things that had happened to maintain poverty among indigenous people there. I decided I didn’t just want to write about these issues: I wanted to help.” After graduation, Collins did a stint as an urban volunteer in Philadelphia with Americorps, tutoring in ethnically diverse high schools. This experience made her a natural fit for buildOn’s culture.

“buildOn is so inherently diverse,” Collins says. “I love working with such a diverse student body, they’re really accepting, and open. I love being able to witness those transformative moments they have. The first time I went to a men’s shelter with buildOn, I could see conversations clicking between students and the men they were serving food to. It was incredible.”

Many of Collins’ favorite service projects, and the ones that she feels have made the most impact, are those that empower the students to create change within their environments, within themselves, and within each other. Branch adds that “the strongest feature of Crystal’s programs is their authentic student leadership. Crystal is always pushing students to take on responsibility. When you visit Crystal’s programs, the students are always in the front of the room learning how to command attention.”

“For the holidays this year,” Collins comments, “I asked buildOn members at my schools to write notes to their student officers, the heads of each high school program. The officers are really self-critical, despite the great work they do. One student who exhibited some problematic behavior through the year wrote about how if it weren’t for the officers, he wouldn’t understand the difference he can make with service.

“Being able to support students to empower each other is more important than me empowering them,” she says. “I almost cried when I read that.” The same student, after praising his officers, also thanked Collins. “Your energy at every meeting and event is what brings smiles to the kids in buildOn,” he said.

“The best thing about this job is that I’m just as stoked about it as the kids,” Collins proclaims. “I know the work I do is so much bigger than me. Not a lot of people can say that about their jobs. The best part is coming in at the start of the day and getting a really good idea for the kids. I’ll get butterflies in my stomach. I get really excited.”