Beyond buildOn: Alumna Rayia Gaddy

For Rayia Gaddy, participation in buildOn was not only a turning point toward healing in a young life touched by tragedy; it also began a journey of service that she’s continuing long after high school.

Readers of Walk in Their Shoes will remember Rayia as the Detroit teen who “got her smile back”  serving homeless vets after losing her beloved brother to gun violence. Rayia’s story of courage and compassion inspired thousands of readers, and five years after buildOn Founder Jim Ziolkowski met her at the Detroit Veterans Center, Rayia’s commitment to serving people in need carries on.

Today, Rayia is a junior at Bowling Green State University with a scholarship from the Sidney A. Ribeau President’s Leadership Academy.  This elite leadership development program, which emphasizes personal growth, service learning and servant leadership, is a natural fit for someone as committed to helping others as Rayia is.

And serving others is definitely keeping Rayia busy this school year. She’s taking service learning courses, volunteering with an equine therapy program and recently finished an internship with buildOn. She knows a service career is in her future, and serving a variety of causes has helped her narrow her path.

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“[By volunteering] I got to find out what populations I liked working with best and which I could offer the most to. I figure I’d work with kids and families because I could relate to them, then help heal their struggles and help them rebuild their bonds,” she says.

Rayia is focusing her studies on youth with behavioral issues, having seen how social issues, such as homelessness or hunger, tend to relate back to a person’s family structure and childhood background. It’s the person-to-person interactions that she finds most valuable in her training.

“It is not just about academics, but learning from different communities and about the world. You learn street smarts and why communicating is so important,” she says.

Rayia is also working with her school’s Office of Service Learning, encouraging other students to get involved in activities such as alternative student break service programs. Through service work, she feels like she’s part of a global “active citizen continuum” that emphasizes community involvement in day-to-day life.

The school building trip to Nicaragua she made with buildOn during high school is an experience that she thinks back to often and credits with helping her be more culturally attuned. “Sometimes I’ll just be walking home at night from work and because of certain smells or looking at the stars, I just imagine myself back in Nicaragua on the mountain,” she says.

Her service in Nicaragua also makes her feel more connected to the diverse communities she finds on campus and motivates her to encourage her classmates to push themselves outside their comfort zones.


When she graduates next year, Rayia will have a bachelors degree in human development and family studies and a certification as a licensed family life educator. She describes her major as a mixture of psychology, human resources, sociology and social work. If not for buildOn, she says, she might not even be in college and definitely would not be as motivated to seek out new opportunities.

Rayia is lucky to have parents who support and motivate her, but she says it’s sometimes hard to shatter the stereotypes and low expectations that her community sets for young people. She remembers neighbors touting the idea of  making “fast money” rather than investing in education and a sustainable livelihood. Rayia, however, never wants to live paycheck to paycheck and has worked increasingly hard to chase down her dreams.

“To fulfill my passions, education is pretty much the only way. If I can be that person from the inner city that people had doubts for, if I can make it through and help people along the way, I feel like I’ll be making a big impact,” she says. “I can be that role model like a lot of people in buildOn were for me.”

buildOn Founder Jim Ziolkowski writes in Walk in Their Shoes that many buildOn youth like Rayia “live in difficult, even dangerous, conditions. But they are able to transcend them, and they do that by serving others.” Indeed, Rayia Gaddy continues to be an inspiring example of this transformative power of service.