Connecticut: “Strong Women Make Strong Communities”
Three buildOn students represented our Connecticut programs on Wednesday at an event hosted by the Young Women’s League of New Canaan (YWL). YWL’s theme for the year is “Strong Women Make Strong Communities.” Each day these students embody this mantra as agents of change in their communities.
Mashiy Harris-Tate, Daneille Robertson and Shateka Knight discussed their experiences as buildOn students and talked about the service work they take part in through buildOn, the impact it has on them and why they think it is important to empower young women.
Shateka, a senior at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, also talked about her experience in Malawi. She traveled on a school building trip with buildOn this summer to help construct a school funded by the YWL. The interactions she had with community members in Malawi greatly enhanced the experience for Shateka.
Read more in her words below.
“When I was younger my parents passed away. I was three when my mother passed away and five when my father passed away. After my mother passed away, my father drifted away from my life. I did not really see him after that, basically until his funeral.
After that, I was tossed between family members so I kind of got that feeling of not belonging anywhere. In school, I was being bullied so that didn’t make life any better.
When I turned nine, my best friend’s mom adopted me. But she had two kids of her own so I didn’t fit in because I wasn’t her “real” daughter. There was always a difference in the way she treated us so that gave me the same feeling again that I didn’t belong anywhere.
But, after I started with buildOn, I had somewhere where I could come and no one cared if how I looked, how I talked, or what I said was different from them. Everyone was always friendly. Once I felt more comfortable with everyone, I felt like people looked forward to seeing me every day. I loved making people smile and feeling like they wanted to see me every day. It gave me a sense that I was needed.
I love playing with the kids at middle schools during service and cooking for people who didn’t have a meal to go home to. I always felt like I was changing someone’s life. I decided to apply for a school building trip with buildOn because I know how good I felt when I went to go help with community service at home.
You would come to the buildOn office and everyone was talking about Trek. I was there right after a whole bunch of people had come back from Haiti. Everyone was telling me about it and I thought, you know, “Hey, building a school in another country, maybe in Africa, who gets that chance?”
I just wanted to feel what everyone else was feeling. I wanted to come back and share the same enthusiasm that they had. I wanted to feel like I was not limited to Bridgeport. That’s how people think. Limited to their communities.
I wanted to make people smile everywhere. Before visiting the village in Malawi, I had never seen so many smiles. It was just an amazing feeling, I can’t explain it. When you get there and you’re in the stages of thinking ‘this is tiring,’ ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ ‘this is stressful’ and then all of these nice people come up and share their love for you. You think, “For what?” Why do you love me?”
And it’s just because you are there. When you have years of feeling unloved, and when a stranger says it to you, it’s especially amazing. And because the villagers can’t even speak English, they don’t even say “I love you” to you, but just their actions show that love.
There is one particular interaction with my host brother that stands out to me.
That’s my Chichewa name. But the only thing that was running throuhg my head was “Who’s calling me at 5 in the morning?” I turned around and saw my 3-year-old host brother wrapped up in a torn blanket. The wind was pelting my skin so he had to be cold. I called out to him.
“Ehh,” he replied. That was the only way we could tell our twin brothers, Sigh and Steven apart.
“Go back inside, it’s cold,” I said, gesturing the door.
“Temandani,” was all he said so I gave in and said “come on” and he ran to me with the biggest smile on his face. I carried him all the way to breakfast. At that exact moment I didn’t know that it would eventually mean as much to me as it does now. That moment, that feeling is exactly why I buildOn.
Before Trek, I did service here and there. I liked doing service, making people smile and having fun. Now that I’ve experienced what a group of people can do for a whole village and how happy it made them, I want to keep making everybody smile. It encouraged me more, even though I’m no longer limited just to impacting Bridgeport, to make the best of what I can do for Bridgeport.
I also love to encourage people to go help build a school. I could sit here and talk for hours about Trek, but you never understand it until you go on it. I would’ve beat myself up for years if I had become a senior and didn’t go on Trek. The more people we have to go on Trek, the more open minded our generation will be. They will open their minds.
We complain every day about our education and our communities, what our parents do and don’t do, but when you see another community living in happiness with the limited resources they have, it’s really an eye opener. There is always somebody going through worse than what we’re going through. Even if you don’t go on Trek abroad, do something to get out of your comfort zone.
I don’t blame my past for anything. Usually you hear people talk and say “I was bullied so I don’t like anyone” or “I hate the world.”
Growing up I was tossed around, bullied and no one in my family even graduated from high school. But I use that as an encouragement to just move on.
I am going to graduate as leader in buildOn and my school. I left the country to help build a school in another country. I’m doing all these things and if you look at my past and my family’s history, you would never expect that.
— Shateka Knight, 12th grader at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut
Shateka, Daneille and Mashiy are just a few of the nearly 300 students that buildOn supports each month in Connecticut. Each of these students has a story about breaking down the barriers they face to create lasting change in their lives, communities and the world. You can support this ongoing mission.