Hero to the Homeless: Nitchela from Boston

buildOn Senior Service Superlatives: Hero to the Homeless
Nitchela Paul, Community Academy of Science and Health (C.A.S.H.), Boston

buildOn Senior Service Superlatives showcase some of the standout seniors from the buildOn Class of 2015. With 92% of buildOn students graduating and going on to college with more than 150,000 hours of service contributed, we have a lot to celebrate this year!

In this personal essay, Nitchela shares her own experience with homelessness and how buildOn service has empowered her to help others in need:


A new chapter of my life started on the day I came to America to live with my dad and my stepmother. I was 15 when I left Haiti, and I arrived in the U.S. with the idea that I would have a more luxurious life, but my new home wasn’t what I expected.

It was difficult for me to immerse in a culture that was totally different from my own. And leaving my mother and my sister behind to live with my new stepmother – who wasn’t happy for me to be there – just added to the pressure. One day, my dad and stepmother got into an argument about me, which ended with me being kicked out of my home, for good, with no place to stay. It felt like I was thrown into the ocean without a life vest on, and I didn’t know how to swim.

So, my dad then left my stepmother behind and moved me to Brockton. There, I had to wake up two hours earlier every day to get to school, which now was an hour and a half away by public transportation. Then, during the summer before my junior year, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, my dad abandoned me and moved back to Haiti. I lived in our house alone for two months, but I couldn’t pay the rent, so the landlord had no choice but to kick me out. I soon found another place to live in Boston, close to school because I didn’t want to miss a day, but again, for the third time, I was kicked out.

I was homeless.

I felt lost. I felt rejected. I didn’t know where to go or who to call, so I contacted my teacher, Ms. T, who had given me her number just a few days before – in case I needed help. That was when my life began to change. First, Ms. T and Ms. Fernandes – or as I call them Sassa and Ms. Fernie – helped me find a place to live. Then they got me involved in the buildOn Chapter.

The first time I went with them to a service project was at Casa Nueva Vida, a homeless shelter for families. I was there playing with younger kids, who were homeless, just like I once was. I got into a conversation with another buildOn student who was there. He was sharing how he used to live in this very shelter when he was younger. At that moment, I realized that other students were facing challenges similar to my own, and that through service we were both making a difference.

Ms. Fernie and Sassa continued to keep me involved in buildOn. They even helped me go on a ‘buildOn Trek’ to construct a school in Malawi. They did whatever they could to get my guardian, my mother’s friend, to sign the paperwork; they helped with my passport application and were even willing to drive to Washington, DC to get my passport from the Haitian consulate. They did so much work to get me on trek, but trust me it was worth it!

At the welcome ceremony in Malawi, I remember one of the villagers giving a speech and saying that “We’ve been praying and waiting for so long for this day to come, but today God has finally answered our prayers.” When I heard him say that, I thought back to when I felt helpless, his words gave me strength and reignited my passion for education! I returned to the U.S. with a new determination to share my experience with other students and spread the importance of education. This year my high school had the privilege of expanding our buildOn chapter into a full program. This has allowed us to get more students involved in buildOn, not with the idea that they are going on trek, but rather to give back to their community of Boston!

Since buildOn program coordinators Aled and Sabeta came to our school, I have participated in each and every service project that was available. At first it was just a way to escape from the issues in my life, but then service became my life vest. It was incredibly infectious. Being able to give back to my own community had strengthened my compassion and had given me a better understanding of life. I realized that even though I couldn’t give back to the people like Sassa and Ms. Fergie, who had been there for me, I could serve my community and bring light into the despair of others – just like others had done for me.

buildOn helped me build a family that I never had in the U.S. I am so proud to see so many other students, at CASH, join the buildOn family this year. So far we have completed almost 5000 hours of service. We serve meals to the homeless at the Boston Rescue Mission, we clean up along the Charles River, run 5K races with youth that are visually impaired and continue to visit Casa Nueva Vida. WE ARE CHANGING OUR COMMUNITY!

I am very proud to tell you that this fall I am attending The University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth with a full tuition scholarship, for my 4 years! buildOn has allowed me to work through the difficult times and believe once again in the value of education.