They buildOn: Student Junior de la Cruz Learns English while Living and Breathing buildOn

Faustino “Junior” de la Cruz is a celebrity in his buildOn community. The president of buildOn’s program at New York’s Academy for Language and Technology, de la Cruz is known for his outgoing personality and his passion for the organization, which he’s used to mobilize his peers countless times. Observers of de la Cruz’s rallies have noted his charisma – according to one buildOn employee, he can have a crowd of students chanting “We are buildOn!” with force in no time using only his own voice for motivation.

De la Cruz spent his formative years in the Dominican Republic; he admits to struggling with English before joining buildOn. But after getting involved, he found he could learn English effectively from interactions with people during community service activities.

“He lives and breathes buildOn,” said Glenda Hernandez, a buildOn’s Youth Development Specialist. Junior, now a senior, was one of Glenda’s first students when she started the academy’s buildOn program as a coordinator two years ago. Junior was one of three students who attended the informational meeting. After that, he recruited dozens of students to join.

Glenda describes him as an ideal team leader who motivates youth.  “He’s in everything. He’s president of the student government,” she said. “He’s just this charming character: girls flock to him, guys flock to him. He’s also the type of person who is compassionate and leads by example.”

buildOn member since: 2008

How has buildOn changed your life?

The most important thing I learned is how to express myself. Also, I learned how to plan. [At first] my schedule was full. I didn’t have time for me. I always went home at seven, eight or nine. And Glenda said I had to organize myself. One day she was after school with me and taught me how to make (to-do) lists. She told me to have a “no” day. And from then on my schedule was light.

Tell me about your trek experience:

We went to Mali, Africa. And that was amazing… During the trek, I realized life is not what we think it is in New York City. Here in New York you want more things to be happy. You have to have a lot of things to be happy. And over there, there was a village. They didn’t have anything at all and they were happy anyway. They live better than us. It should be that way in New York. We’re so materialistic. When we came back, I talked to my friends and said that we shouldn’t buy sneakers for 120 to 130 dollars. Even up to now, I haven’t bought sneakers for over 60 dollars.

How has buildOn made a difference in your city?

95 percent of students in buildOn are going to college. That’s something amazing. Where I live, a lot of students don’t care about school. They don’t know what they’re going to do in the future. buildOn shows them the reality of what we have to do if we don’t prepare ourselves.

What are some of your favorite memories working with buildOn?

It was at a soup kitchen, Part of the Solution. And that was the best memory because at that time I realized what I’m doing at buildOn is really important for other people. When I went there I was giving food to homeless people, and they looked at me like, “Wow, you’re so young and you’re doing that because you want to do it.” Those people really want to thank you and they don’t have anything. And if it wasn’t for that location, they wouldn’t have food for the day.  One person, an old man, looked at me – I’m never going to forget that look – and I was like, “Wow, we’re doing something that people appreciate and people need.”

Complete this sentence: buildOn is… change and opportunity to create a better world.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

I want to have a family, and I want to have a job but I still want to keep working with buildOn. I want to be like Jim (Ziolkowski, buildOn President and CEO) or Marc (Friedman, buildOn COO) in the way that they’re trying to raise money to build schools.

I want to open a buildOn branch at the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, where I will study psychology and criminology.