Chicago Student Survives Gun Violence, Cancer

Alejandro Garcia, 17, has come close to losing everything. Twice.

At 11-years-old, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He went through chemotherapy and gradually went from seeing a doctor every day to every other day, to weekly and then monthly for years until his frail body beat the cancer. Just four years later, when he was living in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, he and his family suffered another near tragedy. He was shot one summer night while walking his dog home. A group of “gangbangers” mistook him for someone else and started yelling at him from their car. They followed him, hopped out of their car and someone with a gun fired at him several times. A bullet hit his lower stomach and left him lying helpless on the concrete.

But Alejandro wasn’t alone. A group of people from a nearby house ran over to him and called 911. They calmed him; made sure he didn’t move and assured him that everything was going to be okay. He was overcome by these strangers’ sympathy and kindness. “The whole time all I could think was, Why are you helping me?” he said. “You don’t even know me.’” After a year of struggling through the emotional and physical pain of recovery, he was able to walk again, as if it had never happened. Yet a seed was planted inside him. He wanted to give something back to society, like so many of the doctors who helped him and the neighbors who came to his rescue and lifted his spirit. And that seed grew with buildOn.

Service Battles Gun Violence

buildOn Program Coordinator Erika Robers went to Roosevelt High School to give the presentation she usually gives to juniors in the fall, explaining buildOn’s mission and outlining the type of community service and projects buildOn organizes. Several students join because the high school requires 40 hours of community service to graduate. Alejandro was sitting in that classroom. By the time Erika showed photos of students building schools overseas in underdeveloped countries, he knew buildOn was something he wanted to be a part of. This is how I’m going to give back to the community and the world, he thought. That day he joined buildOn and decided he would be a part of Trek for Knowledge, and nothing would stop him from reaching that goal.

According to Erika, he didn’t miss a day over service on Saturday mornings with buildOn. He loves meeting new and different people, and discovered he enjoyed working with seniors during his volunteer outreach, serving them food and learning about their stories. “I just enjoy people’s smiles. That makes me feel warm. That makes me feel better; makes me feel that the world isn’t totally evil.” His parents, who immigrated to Chicago from Mexico to provide Alejandro and his brothers with a better lifestyle, didn’t understand how their son went from never doing community service in his life to immersing himself in it. His only answer was that it made him feel good, and that he was ignorant that he could make an impact at his young age. “My family didn’t have a lot but they gave me the best that they could. They’re one of my biggest inspirations.”

Alejandro became president of his buildOn chapter after reading a passionate speech about what he wanted to accomplish for the year and, according to his teacher, Crystal Pfieffer, it was the most mature speech she’d ever seen a student give. “Many adults couldn’t give the speech he gave. And he did everything he said he was going to do,” she said. He is one of the most exceptional students that I’ve ever met because of how different he is,” Crystal said. “When you’re at that age, you want to fit in. But he fits in in a way where his classmates respect him, because they can tell that he genuinely cares about other people, and they respect him because he’s a good person.”

He could’ve easily become a negative person because of the obstacles he’s encountered in life, but he said he never had any bitterness. He was just thankful that what happened to him didn’t happen to anyone that he loved. Joining buildOn gave Alejandro a broader perspective on his capabilities as a young adult. It showed him that teenagers are able to make a positive change, and that there are always people doing good and trying to make the world better. As president of the group, he led his peers by example – and in July he is going to accomplish his goal by building a school in Nicaragua.

Alejandro is entering his senior year, and he plans on attending a university that has community service organizations he can join because he knows he wants to give back for the rest of his life.

“After high school I plan to go to college and to attend medical school to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor,” he wrote in a moving speech about his experience with buildOn. “I also plan to travel to different countries and learn about their cultures, and help the local people with any sickness or injuries they might have. I feel like I was put here for a reason, and everything I have been through is no coincidence. buildOn opened my eyes to how I see the world; I feel there are endless possibilities of what I can do.”