Rayia’s Story: How One buildOn Student Broke the Cycle

Nearly 25 years ago, Rayia Gaddy was born into one of the economically poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Though her mother did her best to provide a stable home for Rayia and her siblings, life wasn’t easy. Rayia’s father battled with substance abuse, and because of this he was in and out of jail throughout her childhood.*

But fortunately for Rayia, her older brother Vandell was there for her. He took her to school every day and walked her to the front door to make sure she got in safely. On her birthday, Vandell was always the one who took her out to celebrate. No matter what was going on, he made that day special for Rayia. He was her hero.

Then, three weeks before Rayia’s 15th birthday, Vandell was tragically gunned down with an AK-47.

Sad Rayia (1)

Rayia (pictured above) lost her older brother Vandell to gun violence just three weeks before her 15th birthday.

Rayia was devastated. And when her birthday came around she knew she couldn’t celebrate it without Vandell. In the depths of her depression, she couldn’t leave her house or go to school — she was paralyzed by fear. Rayia Gaddy was trapped by the cycle, and it was about to crush her.

But since she couldn’t celebrate her birthday without her brother, she decided instead to contribute a day of service in honor of Vandell. So she went with buildOn to volunteer with homeless veterans who had served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, many of whom were suffering from PTSD.

As she spoke to the men about their experiences and she shared her own, something inside her changed. The men gave her the courage to overcome her fear. They sensed her pain and drew it out, and gave her the inspiration she needed to stand back up.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Rayia Serving

Rayia (pictured above) went to a homeless shelter to serve veterans in order to honor the memory of her brother Vandell. 

After that day, Rayia kept going. She contributed over 700 hours of service and went to Nicaragua to build a school. As a senior, she won a full scholarship to Bowling Green State University for her service. She made the honor roll her freshman year and was nominated this year to the homecoming court. In May, Rayia Gaddy graduated Magna Cum Laude and at the top of her class.

Rayia was not crushed by the cycle. She shattered it.


*Rayia’s father has now recovered from his addition and in fact counsels other individuals with substance abuse issues.