Isaiah’s Service Story: From the South Bronx to Senegal

As the 2016-17 school year came to an end, buildOn students across the country reflected on their experiences serving at home and abroad. Isaiah recently graduated from the School for Tourism and Hospitality (STH) in the Bronx, where he served more than 120 hours with buildOn while in high school. Isaiah also traveled to Senegal in February 2017 to help build a school with buildOn. He will be attending the State University of New York at Canton in the fall.

In the Bronx, I live near our school. The community surrounding the school isn’t that good. There’s a lot of people who don’t have houses. Across the street, there are the projects. And at the corner store, it’s dangerous. When people go into the stores, they feel frightened or threatened. When you’re walking around, you have to be a extra cautious. People shouldn’t have to be aware of their surroundings when they’re trying to just go and get an education, but that’s how it is.

It’s always in the back of my head that I have to be worried because in the South Bronx, anything can happen. I know I have to be aware of what I’m doing, who I’m talking to, how I’m acting. buildOn has changed the way I view the Bronx because I know now that if I want to make a change, I have to be willing to do it. Since the Bronx is my home, I’m trying my best to break the cycle.

One of the reasons I joined buildOn is because of buildOn’s Founder and CEO Jim Ziolkowski. He came to our school last year, and he talked about a lot of the different ways we can help impact the world. I wanted to help out in my community, so I decided to join.


Since joining buildOn, Isaiah has become a student leader at the School for Tourism and Hospitality in the Bronx. (Photo by Tara Rice)

There was a service project where we made cards at the school and then we went out in the community, and we said, “Happy Wednesday,” to people and gave them the cards we made. For some people in the community, that was really shocking, because they don’t expect that living in the South Bronx. They expect that people will be rude to them. So to surprise them and spread kindness, that felt really good to me. There was one man, he has lived here for a really long time, and he had never seen someone want to help him or help the community. By being out there, we are encouraging others to help make positive change.

And we also help out the community by going to food pantries like Hunt’s Point Repack. Our service even extends beyond our own community. I went on Trek to Senegal to build a school in February of this year.

Trek taught me a lot. I saw how people in Senegal would die to have a spot in at my school in the Bronx, and yet, there are people who go to the School for Tourism & Hospitality who are just wasting the opportunity.

Going on Trek really impacted me. It was amazing to see how close the community was in the village in Senegal. And I made a really strong bond with my host mom. At night, I would tell her how thankful I was for her doing everything that she was doing. The first day when we went to the work site, I was expecting to come home and have to straighten up all my stuff. But, when I came home, my mom had already done it and she washed our clothes. That meant a lot to me. In Senegal, you have to wash your clothes by hand, and for her to do that, for her to take time out of her day to do that for me—it really meant a lot.


Isaiah (center) and other buildOn students from New York City bond with the community members they served with to build a school in Senegal.

At night we would sit down with our family members, and we would just play board games like Connect 4 and Jenga or we would just talk and laugh. When we left, it was hard to say bye to my host mom. It was really hard because we built such a strong connection.

Trek taught me a lot. I saw how people in Senegal would die to have a spot in at my school in the Bronx, and yet, there are people who go to the School for Tourism & Hospitality who are just wasting the opportunity. I’m really grateful for what I have and my education. Some people risk their lives to get an education.

Another one of the things I really like about buildOn is that we are changing perceptions and stereotypes. We are teaching others not to judge a book by it’s cover. I know that my neighborhood seems tough, but there are people inside my school who have close bonds and who are doing good things.


On Trek in Senegal, Isaiah had the chance to visit a completed buildOn school (similar to the classrooms he helped construct) and taught English to the students.

I want to be a part of that. Being an African American man, it is important for me to know that I helped the world out and helped out in my community. Also, being the only one in my family to actually travel outside the country to serve makes me proud, and my family tells me they are proud of me. I want to represent my race with pride—I think that if I carried my race with pride, people would actually change the way they think of African Americans.

Something I’ve always carried with me is what my dad has told me. He told me to never settle for average, to always try to go beyond. That motivated me to graduate high school a year early. Now, I want to put my voice out there. And I’ve been able to do that with buildOn.

Below: Isaiah leads New York City students and Senegalese community members in a chant of “We are buildOn” at the start of a day of school building.