George and Ms. Furgeson

Banana Kelly High School, in the South Bronx, is not an easy place for students even under the best circumstances.

On average, only thirty percent of incoming freshman will remain in school and graduate. It has been led by three different principals in the last three years alone, and only one teacher currently employed at Banana Kelly taught there last year. Such drastic changes, while part of an ongoing effort to reinvent and revitalize the school, take their toll on students. From one year to the next, they might confront—quite literally—an entirely different school.

While attending Banana Kelly, George McLeod certainly did not face the best circumstances. In addition to the already staggering challenges that come with attending one of the most under-resourced high schools in New York, George also has to contend with a learning disorder. For a while he was failing many of his classes, struggling to cope with the new demands of high school.

George in Banana Kelly

But then George joined buildOn, where he learned to lift himself up by serving others in his community. For one of his first service projects, George, with roughly 200 of his buildOn peers, hosted a literacy fair for an elementary school in the Bronx. Shortly into the fair, an elderly woman, Mrs. Furgeson, approached him apprehensively. She demanded to know what so many teenagers were doing in her neighborhood. When George took the opportunity to tell her about buildOn, how he was striving to better his community through service, Mrs. Furgeson was overwhelmed.

She had lived in that neighborhood her entire life, Mrs. Furgeson told George, and over the years had become afraid of the youth she saw on the streets. But she was proud of what George and his friends were doing, which gave her hope. She told him that she would not be immediately afraid of teenagers again.

Geroge and Mrs Furg

George recalls that conversation vividly, a seemingly small moment that profoundly affected him. “This was a turning point in my life because I never knew I could have such an impact on someone else’s life that I did not know. Mrs. Furgeson told me ‘You are the future. Keep your hands held high, and never give up,’ and I walked away with my head held high.”

The buildOn program at Banana Kelly high school gave George a place to belong and a reason to keep him coming to school – despite all of his struggles. By helping others to overcome their challenges, he developed the grit and determination he needed to persevere. “buildOn makes a difference in my school by creating a positive environment and encouraging students,” George says.

That encouragement has certainly paid off. George is now passing all of his classes. In fact, he is an honors student.

Geroge and the Honor Role