Sheyla’s Story: Paying It Forward by Giving Back

Thousands of young people from America’s cities are giving every day to transform themselves, their communities and their world through service and education with buildOn. For students like Sheyla Ocampo from Chicago, this often means paying forward the compassion they’ve received from others. This is Sheyla’s story in her own words.

The first time I did service with buildOn at Su Casa, a homeless shelter in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.

That morning, when I met my fellow buildOn students outside my high school, I could already feel the energy building in my chest. We hopped on the bus to the shelter, and as we walked in the front door and began to climb the stairs my heart started beating faster. I could feel the blood pumping through my veins. I couldn’t believe I was there to do service.

As I walked through the building … past the library, the drawing room, the piano room … I was flooded by happiness. The building felt so safe and comfortable – it felt like being wrapped up in a warm sweater.

Outside Su Casa homeless shelter, in Chicago’s Back of the Yard’s neighborhood.

That day we were cooking and serving breakfast to the families staying at Su Casa. As I was serving meals I handed out lollipops to all the kids. Lollipops are great conversation starters. It was then that I noticed an older girl, about 12, looking at me. She had dark black hair and an oval face. Just like me. I went up to her and offered her a lollipop, asked her name and how long her family had been staying at Su Casa. The way she answered me I could tell she was angry, that she felt like I was intruding in her life.

I told her, “There is nothing to be ashamed of living here, this is one of the nicest shelters!”

She stared at me blankly and then said angrily: “What do you know about it?”

I was taken aback, but I told myself to stay calm, to be patient with her. I remembered that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I decided to let a picture talk for me.

“Follow me,” I said.

I took her into the hallway where a framed collage hung with photos of families and children who had stayed at Su Casa in the past. I pointed to a young girl, about her age.

“I’m right here,” I said. “This is me, I used to live here…”

Sheyla points to her own families photo in a collage of former residents of the Su Casa homeless shelter.

When I was 12 I felt so ashamed to be homeless. I felt like we weren’t even a part of the community. I felt like no one noticed our struggle. Growing up my mom worked hard to raise four kids on her own. She was always working two or three jobs just to get by. Sometimes I hardly saw her during the week. Oftentimes we relied on the care and generosity of others.

But when I was staying at Su Casa I saw the power of what a volunteer could do. That’s where I met Javier, a volunteer at Su Casa from Germany who took time off his studies to do service. Javier made me smile, played games with me, and took care of me when my mom wasn’t around. I never forgot the feeling I received when someone other than my mom would help my family out. That feeling stuck with me.

That’s why I do service with buildOn, to help others the way Javier helped me.

Sheyla especially enjoys serving with children who are facing homelessness situations like she once faced herself.

My story could be looked at as one of pain or struggle, but I prefer to look at it as one of love, triumph, and service. buildOn has given me a chance to embrace who I am. It has filled me with compassion and empathy for others. It has focused my energy on being in the service of those around me.

So as this young girl stood there angrily, refusing to meet my eyes – I saw myself and I knew I wanted to help her the best way I could.

I told her, “I can’t completely feel what you’re feeling, but I do know what it’s like to live here and be in this situation. I can tell you, it does get better. Don’t let this tumble you to the floor, let this build you up. Don’t look back on this as a time you were down, look back on this as a time you built yourself up.”

When you serve in buildOn you have the chance to help someone and it becomes a chain reaction. They might go home and help someone else and then it goes on and on and the movement starts to grow. Maybe one day she’ll look back on that moment as a turning point. Maybe she’ll remember me as I remember Javier.

Sheyla’s is a story of love, triumph and service. The are thousands of buildOn students just like Sheyla giving back every day.