Chris’ Story: Finding Home and Building Community

Chris Tavarez is a senior at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, New York. He has contributed over 750 hours of service to his neighborhood, and has helped build a school in Haiti. Chris was a keynote speaker at the 2015 buildOn Gala in New York City, sharing his story with over 1,000 attendees.

The summer before my freshman year of high school my family and I made the tough decision to move from Greensboro, North Carolina to the South Bronx. Even though my strong, independent mother worked three jobs just to put food on the table, we were struggling financially. Then my mom lost her main job, and because she she didn’t finish high school and speaks very little English, she struggled to find another job, and we couldn’t make ends meet any more.

To my family the only logical solution was to run away from the source of our pain. Short on money and options we decided to move to the South Bronx to live with my older sister. I was nervous and worried about my new home because of all of the warnings I received from my friends. They told me that there would be “gangsters” roaming the streets. That it would be dangerous and filled with violence. However, I thought to myself, “How hard could it be?”

That feeling changed when I saw my school – Banana Kelly High School. It’s a funny name, but the environment is far from funny. As I stood in front of my school I saw a grey building with gated windows from the basement to the very top floor. There were locks on all the doors and police officers standing outside.

bkChris’ new school in New York City, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx

Far from my dreams of the happy, spirited high schools I saw on the Disney Channel, I felt isolated and alone in my new school. But as I wandered around my new school I stumbled on one warm and welcoming room: The buildOn room.

A room that is always open, where anyone can enter and sit at one of the tables. When you go inside you always get a “hello” and a “how are you?”. There are positive role models surrounding you, from the posters and quotes of MLK, Gandhi, Malcom X — to the buildOn coordinators who welcome me there every day.

What buildOn offers Banana Kelly is a safe space and an empowering environment. In a chaotic environment where negativity abounds, buildOn offers different alternatives. We enter the space to share different ideas that are often unheard, we join together to take action in our community — the only rule we follow is open mindedness. With our buildOn family we share everything, from BIG things that are bothering us, all the way down to hilarious social media arguments.

chris paintingChris’ and his classmates are strengthening their community by doing service like painting uplifting murals over graffiti.

buildOn teaches a service learning class twice a week at my school. In this class, we learned about the school to prison pipeline and how the odds were stacked against us. Society expected I would be going to prison based on my race, education level, financial status and neighborhood. And this was also the stereotype I had about my new neighborhood when I first moved to the Bronx. In fact, I remember playing basketball shortly after moving. After the game, some kids tried to steal my basketball. They grabbed me, and as I tried to escape they threw the ball at my head.

But then another group of teenagers came and stood up for me. They didn’t know me, they didn’t have to, but they did. These are the kids in the Bronx that are often forgotten about. The kids who are courageous and try to do righteous things. I knew I wanted to be one of those teenagers, and I knew I wanted to help others.

With buildOn I was able to become one of those teenagers, because the most important thing we do is…SERVE.

Doing community service is important because we are exposed to different environments where we take on new perspectives. And with new perspectives, amazing things happen… For example, one time I was volunteering at a soup kitchen I took a small break to dine with a group of homeless gentleman. A political debate broke out at the table. Sitting there listening to their conversation turn from politics to helping each other find resources, I realized that these individuals are intelligent, well spoken, and kind people. I connected to them having been through similar financial struggles as I go through the process to prove myself as a capable individual.

This difficult task of proving myself isn’t made any easier by the fact I attend a school where only 120 of the 500 students enrolled attend daily. These 120 students are involved in some way with buildOn, because it gives them a reason to show up. And it gives me a reason to show up.

Chris and friendsChris and his buildOn friends taking a break from volunteering in a community garden.

Through service I have learned about myself and my community. This learning becomes knowledge. With this knowledge I have become a leader. buildOn pushed me out of my comfort zone, exposed me to new ideas, and created a different perspective on how I view the world.

We are all very different: different backgrounds, different beliefs, and different families. But what we have in common is what makes us all human: our values. We all want love, we want joy, and we want happy, safe and prosperous communities.

New York needs buildOn because they create a stronger learning environment in our schools. With buildOn creativity and positivity are promoted, not prison. buildOn has helped me and my peers see the world differently and take control of our futures.