Carlos’ Story: Serving the Homeless on the Streets of Chicago

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buildOn’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education. We empower urban youth to transform their neighborhoods through intensive community service and to change the world by building schools in some of the economically poorest countries in the world. In our “Voices from the Movement” series, buildOn students, teachers, community members and supporters share why service matters and how it inspires change.

Most people pass by the homeless and don’t recognize them as individuals of society. Although reducing poverty is a difficult task, I believe buildOn students can greatly reduce these statistics.

I used to be very pessimistic about whether I could ever have an impact. Being so young I didn’t think I had the knowledge or the power to change the problems I saw in my neighborhood. My school, Schurz High School, had a downward spiraling reputation. There was gang activity in my school. Students were apathetic and had low expectations for themselves. Overall, there was just a lot of negative energy and I didn’t think I could do anything about it.

But with buildOn in my school, I saw an enormous amount of positivity. I saw that students who were part of buildOn made progress both in their academics and in how they viewed the future. And, I saw how they were making a difference in Chicago as well.

As soon as I started going to service projects with buildOn I saw how we were making an impact on issues like homelessness. Through buildOn I learned about what life is like as a homeless teen. I came to understand how difficult it is for homeless people to find a shelter for the night. I’ve served meals to the homeless population and I learned that many families, not just individuals, depend on these meals.

So when a homeless man asked me for change as I was walking one day, I thought back to all I had learned through buildOn, and I decided to take him to lunch instead.

It was a simple meal at McDonald’s, but the man was surprised and grateful that I asked. Most people pass by the homeless, but I just wanted to lend an ear.

As we ate, the man told me how harsh life is when you have nothing. He told me how he lost his job at a factory. He said he never knew how to manage money, so he couldn’t afford to pay his bills and then he lost his home. He told me how he sleeps in the streets downtown and how socks, hats and blankets are a necessity because that’s what really keeps you warm at night.

When I left lunch I immediately called Francisco, my buildOn Program Coordinator, and told him I had an idea for a service project to go downtown and distribute the things that the man told me he needed.

Then Francisco and the other buildOn members at my school helped me put my idea into action. We got together and made care packages for the homeless. The care packages included a sandwich, a juice box, a bag with cookies and grapes, a handmade greeting card, and a warm winter hat – just like the man asked for. Then we walked and distributed the care packages throughout downtown Chicago.

It felt incredible knowing that I helped make this project happen. Projects like this one have shaped my idea of how we can all change the world!

And, I feel even better about how much buildOn has contributed to my school.

I know when I wear my buildOn shirt people can see what kind of person I am. I tell other students that if you join buildOn you can see the good side of your school, you can see all of the people who really do want to make a difference – who want to get ahead in life. And who want to bring other people ahead with them. I tell them that buildOn is shaping future leaders and creating a positive change in Chicago and beyond.

Carlos Leon
17 years old
Schurz High School
Chicago, IL


Pictured: (Clockwise) Carlos delivers care packages to the homeless in Downtown Chicago; The students from Schurz inserted handmade notes into the care packages; The buildOn students from Schurz High School assemble care packages for the homeless.

Carlos Bag

Making care packages