Joahan’s Story – buildOn Staff Inspired by Student Heroes

“They are in the middle of their childhood and they’re thinking about what their moms are going through… the violence that they’ve got to deal with on a regular basis and yet every day they choose to come to school…they choose to give back to their community. In my eyes that’s definitely a hero.”
– Joahan Suarez, buildOn Program Coordinator

Just like the students he mentors on a daily basis, buildOn program coordinator Joahan Suarez had to overcome obstacle after obstacle to find his path to success.

Joahan grew up in Washington Heights, with no siblings and only his single mother to support him. He was smart, good at school, and aced his classes despite his chronic absenteeism. He was on a path to graduation. But then, his junior year of high school, Joahan suffered from a life changing injury. He broke his knee playing football and had to have extensive reconstructive surgery on his leg, leaving him unable to take public transportation. With no other way to get to and from school, he dropped out.

Luckily, Joahan was able to get a tutor to come to his home so he could continue his education. In just a few short months had acquired his GED and went on to take his SATs – with a score so impressive that it earned him a spot at Columbia University. Despite the enormous setback of his injury, Joahan had persevered and he was back in school, and back on track.

Then, suddenly, his mother passed away.

“When my mom passed away, it was just me and bills. So, at the age of 18, I had to drop out of college and get a job so I could support myself,” said Joahan.

With no money, and no idea what to do, Joahan followed the recommendation of a friend and applied to City Year, a national community service organization. “City Year was just a job at first. I didn’t even know what I was applying to when they gave me the application. I just filled it out,” said Joahan.

The application asked Joahan questions like: “Have you ever been in a leadership position?” and “Have you ever helped your community?” He answered “no” to so many of the questions that he doubted he would even get an interview, but shortly after turning in his application he had the job.

From City Year to The South Bronx

He began by planning service projects for law firms and corporations in some of New York City’s most under resourced neighborhoods. Joahan enjoyed serving his community and seeing the difference that could be made when people came together. Then, one day, he organized a mural project in honor of a local boy who had passed away from leukemia.

“While we were painting the mural, the boy’s mother broke down and started crying – with all the lawyers and volunteers there – and I realized how much that moment meant to her,” said Johan. “Even to this day she comes by and looks at the mural. We immortalized her son for her. That was really rewarding for me and is why I fell in love with service.”

These experiences help Joahan in his work with the students at Banana Kelly High School, a failing school in the South Bronx. Every day, the students at Banana Kelly are faced with violence, hunger and poverty before they event make it to school. Joahan can relate. But through buildOn, Joahan uses his love of service to show students that they have the power to change their destinies, no matter what life throws at them.

“I wish I had buildOn when I was a student because when they come out to soup kitchens and they serve food to the less fortunate … they start to realize that it takes a community of people to care for each other,” said Joahan. “We all go through our own realities, and I’m open about my mom’s passing and about dropping out of school. Thankfully, I have these experiences that I can communicate in a realistic way with the students. They take it seriously when I tell them how education is important and that you shouldn’t give up on school. I’m speaking from experience.”

Breaking The Cycle

With your support Joahan and the buildOn team can empower many more students in New York and around the country, students who are poised to change their lives, and our world.