buildOn Students Help Chicago Parks Go Smoke Free

Two recent buildOn alums are continuing their commitment to service beyond buildOn, and they’re already seeing their efforts impact their community in a big way.

Izamar Vazquez and Terryana Bonds are two buildOn alumni from Chicago. The pair interned with the American Lung Association (ALA) this summer, and their work played a key role in the Chicago Park District’s Board of Commissioners vote to ban all forms of smoking in all Chicago parks.

As part of their internship, Izzy and Terry distributed surveys on tobacco use to community members in 10 neighborhood parks across the city, while also picking up cigarette litter and collecting data about signage posted in designated non-smoking areas.


Terry and Izzy picking up cigarette litter at a Chicago playground.

The opportunity to share information came a lot sooner than expected and, though their sample size is small, their findings showed the Board that a majority of people believe that smoking is a big problem in Chicago neighborhoods. 61 percent of people in their survey felt that they wanted smoke free parks and nearly 90 percent said they find secondhand smoke harmful.

Since the survey, Terry has thought even more about being considerate of others, especially when it comes to shared spaces and public health issues. She says that volunteering with buildOn helped her become more open to talking to new people, something that really helped when she was surveying community members.

“[buildOn] helped me realize that I really liked helping people. It helped me to get out of my comfort zone and become more considerate of others,” Terry says. “I was never really mindful about how other people feel, but the program really helped me be more compassionate.”

Both students gained a greater understanding of how to share the voice of people in their communities and how young people can serve as an asset when it comes to advocacy and awareness work.

“We often don’t have enough staff and time to dedicate to our initiatives so the help of energetic, smart, enthusiastic high school students like the buildOn students is hugely valuable for us,” Kristina Hamilton, the ALA’s manager for tobacco control and lung health, says. “And the experience can be a foundation for so many wonderful accomplishments in their careers and civic duties.”


Just some of the thousands of cigarette butts and smoking litter that Terry and Izzy removed from Chicago parks.

The students’ findings also shows the importance of reducing smoking in vulnerable communities. Smoking rates are about 20 percent across the country, but nearly double in under-resourced and lower income communities. 27.9 percent of adults who are below the poverty level smoke, compared to 17 percent of adults who are at or above the poverty level. Since almost all smokers start before the age of 25, and most before they turn 18, higher rates of smoking in communities can have an especially negative impact on youth.

“We really wanted to target a population that may not have as much of a voice in policies that are made in regards to health issues like smoking outdoors,” Kristina said. “Especially because some communities where people are under more stress or have experienced trauma oftentimes will be drawn to smoking.”

There is a long way to go to further reduce smoking across the city, but buildOn students are helping communities to get there.

“When I heard that they had passed the bill, I was really excited. All of our hard work over the summer truly impacted the city,” Izzy says. “Sometimes people look at youth and think they are just young and reckless. People have a bad impression. But when young people are really interested in advocating for something, for making a better society for us to live in, their passion makes a difference.”

Izzy and Terry also helped the ALA lobby for IL HB5892, which provides students better access to asthma treatment in schools. Shown here at the bill’s signing with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.