Illuminating the Future: A buildOn Gala to Remember

This Tuesday, we held our biggest event of the year––our 2023 buildOn Gala––at The Glasshouse in New York City.

And what a night it was! The sleek, modern venue brimmed with energy, the speakers were eloquent and captivating, our featured performer Samantha “Just Sam” Diaz brought the house down, and the food (which included autumnal favorites and an artisanal twist on an NYC deli classic, the chopped cheese!) was delicious. buildOn supporters, students, educators, and community leaders came together to celebrate our work and raise funds for our transformative programs.

Stepping into the beautiful Glasshouse, you couldn’t help but be struck by the vibrant atmosphere as the hum of excited conversations wafted into the rafters. The sleek, modern décor and displays were infused with a sense of purpose, reflecting buildOn’s mission to empower students and communities through education and service.

We were also thrilled to debut our buildOn Trek virtual reality experience! The exhibit allowed guests to slip on a headset and, for a few minutes, be transported halfway across the globe to a buildOn Trek in Senegal.

A new and innovative VR experience allowed Gala guests to get a first-hand look at what being on a buildOn Trek is like.

Through the VR experience, attendees were able to follow along as buildOn alumni Othello Herbert (who was also a featured speaker at the event!) worked alongside community members in a rural village in Senegal to build a brand new school. Through the immersive power of virtual reality, the experience of Trek was made that much more tangible to the hundreds of Gala guests.

As the evening progressed, attendees moved into the auditorium for riveting speeches by Herbert, as well as buildOn Founder and CEO Jim Ziolkowski, Chief Development Officer Marc Friedman, Bronx Community Foundation President Dr. Meisha Porter, and a keynote speech by New York City Department of Education Chancellor David C. Banks.

Chancellor Banks’ speech was definitely one of the night’s many highlights. He spoke eloquently about his experience working with Jim and buildOn just as both he and the organization were getting their starts in the world of education. His enthusiasm for buildOn and hope for the future was infectious: “the Bronx… has always been the center of major challenges for lots of reasons… but… the Bronx is brimming with so much promise and potential,” he said. “It just needs people to give a damn. buildOn gives a damn.”

New York City Department of Education Chancellor David C. Banks’ speech was one of the night’s many highlights.

Both before the speeches and during the Gala afterparty, American Idol winner Samantha “Just Sam” Diaz dazzled the audience with their powerful vocals and positive energy. Performing a number of classic uplifting songs, they added perfectly to the night’s celebratory vibe. Diaz was deeply moved by buildOn’s work and vision, saying “I think what buildOn is doing is truly incredible work, and it’s not only because of what you are doing in my city, but what you are doing all across the world. I think it’s incredible.”

American Idol winner Samantha “Just Sam” Diaz wowed the audience with their incredible and passionate vocals.

Othello Herbert was also a highlight, as he and Jim captivated guests with their retelling of his incredible life journey for someone so young. Having grown up in some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Chicago, Herbert has gone on to study at Columbia University in New York to join the United States Foreign Service. 

“The Bronx is brimming with so much promise and potential. It just needs people to give a damn. buildOn gives a damn.”

David C. Banks, NYC Department of Education Chancellor

In addition to alumni like Herbert, current buildOn Bronx students were a welcome addition to the night, as they brought an incredible youthful energy to the audience and inspired hope in all of the Gala attendees.

buildOn Bronx students helped emphasize what the night was all about––transforming lives and communities through service.

Much of the format of this year’s Gala was new––from the interactive displays to the more free-form dinner experience. This created a more lively atmosphere and allowed many different members of the buildOn community to meet and connect. 

We’re still processing our 2023 Gala, and there were so many highlights that were not touched on here. The Gala was more than just a fundraising event; it was a celebration of hope, resilience, and the transformative power of education and service. It was truly an incredible night, and a testament to the strength and vibrancy of the buildOn community. The future is bright!

To help illuminate the futures of communities across the world, please consider making a gift to support both buildOn’s U.S. and global programs.