Twenty Years of buildOn:Alum and Child Life Specialist Megan MasseyReaches Beyond Herself

When I phoned buildOn alum Megan Massey on a Wednesday, mid-morning, one of the first things out of her mouth was an apology. “Right now I’m on call for a few end-of-life situations…” she explained, that might cut our conversation short.

Massey is a certified child life specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Her occupation is grueling but people-oriented, and rewarding as a result. “I work with children and help them cope with the stress of hospitalization,” she said. “We prepare them for procedures, and make the hospital environment feel safer by providing play. In end-of-life situations we work with brothers and sisters and help them to understand what death and dying really mean, and also do some ‘memory making’.”

[pullquote]I work with children and help them cope with the stress of hospitalization.[/pullquote]

It all sounds overwhelming, but in Massey’s words, “It’s really about connecting with people.” She describes the desire to reach out to others as a lifelong passion, one that buildOn helped to ignite. “When I was a freshman, Jim [Ziolkowski, CEO and founder] did a presentation about the program, and a recent school building trip to Nepal. As soon as I saw that work it really changed my perspective. Jim has a way of grabbing your attention and getting you to think about those who don’t have the same opportunities as you. I joined the year after that presentation.”

Massey attended Lumen Christi High, Ziolkowski’s own alma mater, in Jackson, Michigan during the early 2000’s. As a sophomore, she was part of Lumen Christi’s second school building trip ever, to Mali. “It was right after my sixteenth birthday,” she said with a mix of nostalgia and disbelief. “But the trip was…it was amazing. I went with a very diverse group; I was one of 3 Caucasian people who went.”

She’s now come to view this experience as monumentally formative. “We were in a village with no running water and no electricity,” she reminisced. “Their only food source was the crops they grew. It was drastic exposure to a different world. It gave me the chance to not just see a problem from afar and throw money at it. It was a chance to engage and be present in the suffering and be present in part of the solution. That’s something my husband and I still do today. If we want to make a difference, we don’t stand on the outside and offer vague support, we really like to get involved.”

After returning from Mali, Massey stepped up that involvement immediately, entrenching herself in buildOn service. “My junior and senior year I was student president of the buildOn program,” she mentioned to me. During her tenure, she focused on promoting the awareness of and reaching out to regional human suffering. “We did one activity called ‘Homeless for a Night’ where we’d spend the night in a parking lot. The cops would usually move us, sometimes it would rain. It helped us not to take things for granted and to support the underserved in the community.”

Since leaving high school, Massey has continued to nurture her interests in education and community development. “Mali gave me the perspective of joining people in their suffering and helping them come out of that, and not from a distance,” she explained. “I don’t travel anymore, but I’ve been able to apply that knowledge to my own community. It’s followed me around.”

[pullquote]Mali gave me the perspective of joining people in their suffering and helping them come out of that, and not from a distance.[/pullquote]

In addition to her day job as a child life specialist, she and her husband are foster parents, and are also involved in Common Ground, an organization that supports the rights of underprivileged youth in Milwaukee. “…which is a hot topic, if you’ve been following Madison in the news,” she points out. “There’s a lot of change and budget cuts. We want to support kids in their education here, because there’s a lot of downsizing of staff going on.”

Through it all, Massey often thinks back to the school she constructed in Mali with buildOn. “It inspired me to reach beyond myself. It came at a vulnerable teenage time in my life and allowed me to view things outside of my ego-centric self. It was great at an early age to be able to reach out to people.”