Voices from the Movement: Finding Family by Serving Others

In our “Voices from the Movement” series you will hear stories directly from buildOn students, educators, community members and supporters about why service matters and how it empowers change.

“You should know better.”

This ubiquitous saying is heard constantly in our lives: at the supermarket from parent to child; at school from teacher to student; at home from spouse to spouse; or even in our own heads, chastising ourselves for not being the best we can be, all the time.

Recently, it was 15 year old Lakwana Cohens saying it: “Before I had buildOn, I didn’t know any better,” she says. “I ran the streets at night. I got drunk, I got high, I was gang affiliated.”

It’s hard to imagine such a dark statement could come from the same mouth that’s now in a full toothed grin, as she laughs with other students or giggles at her buildOn Program Coordinator from Michele Clark High School on Chicago’s West Side.

Look a little below her smile though, and you’ll see her forearm, tattooed with her mother’s name ‘Mildred’ in cursive, two hearts flanking it. “I didn’t want this tattoo,” she says. “My social worker is seeing if I can get it removed.” The thought is implied, but she says it anyway, “I don’t love her.”

Where does knowing better come from? How do we learn what better is? Who teaches us that? Listening to Lakwana tell her story, the answer becomes clear – knowing better comes from family. We learn what is best from the people in our lives who hold us up, praise us, encourage us and push us to be exactly that – our best. But where does that leave someone who has been bounced around from house to house, whose life has been captured in a revolving door of packing and unpacking suitcases, train tickets, too-soon goodbyes and awkward hellos?

“Before I had buildOn, I didn’t know any better. I ran the streets at night. I got drunk, I got high, I was gang affiliated.”

Home is not a word Lakwana uses often.  Leaving her mother’s house at 5 years old, she has been filtered through more houses than she can rightfully remember, 5 in the past 4 years. She’s currently sleeping couch-to-couch, waiting for social services to place her in a residential teen living program.

‘Family’ and ‘Home’ can seem synonymous, but getting to know Lakwana, the contrast sharpens with each word carrying its own meaning and depth. It’s surprising to hear her use the word ‘family’ often and openly, a warm expression spreading across her face before the word forms on her lips. “buildOn is a place where I can be myself,” she says. “It’s an open space for me to be more than my problems, and I am helping people too. buildOn is my family.”

Instead of shying away from the circumstances that have molded her, Lakwana embraces them, celebrates them as stepping stones towards her own bright future.  “My favorite type of service is when we help the homeless,” she says. “I know what they’re going through because I’m in a homeless situation myself and I know they enjoy and appreciate the help. When we give away clothes at the Kelly Hall YMCA I feel valuable, because we are making people feel valuable. We are giving people something they need and appreciate.”

“I found my purpose with buildOn: youth have responsibility for the future,” she adds. “I began to spend all my free time with buildOn, and it changed me. I think differently – I stopped littering, I help the old people who live on my block. If I see someone who needs help, I know I can help them. I have something better to do with my time now. People will message me to hang with them like I used to, I say ‘No, I have somewhere to be in the morning.’ I learned I can strive for what I want, no matter who tells me I can’t.”

“My favorite type of service is when we help the homeless, I know what they’re going through because I’m in a homeless situation myself and I know they enjoy and appreciate the help.”

Lakwana’s resilience and determination allow her to find new family everywhere she serves.  Her humor and humility allow her to look deeply into others and find value in all people. “At Breakthrough Homeless Shelter over spring break we made a meal for the women. We sat and ate with them. I made a new friend, a woman who called me her daughter. She said I was like her when she was younger, and she changed me that day.  She’s homeless, I’m homeless. Thinking of her every day inspires me to go to school more, to follow my dreams.  She used to have her own dreams and she lost them from people stepping on her, and she doesn’t want me to lose my dreams.”

Lakwana is changing her neighborhood and she’s changing herself. With each smile, laugh and friendly conversation, she is building her self-confidence and strengthening her community. She has found her reason to know better: her family. “I came to service today because I know my community needs help,” she say. “It starts with one person and then it multiplies.”


Lakwana volunteers at community garden in her neighborhood.