Student volunteers “buildOn” success

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Rodney Gaston (left) and Nakayla Baskin-Simmons, 15-year-old sophomores at Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, both are active members of their school’s buildOn volunteer group. Both logged about 40 volunteer hours during their freshman year.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – The student volunteers of Henry Ford Academy’s buildOn group are finding that when they help others they improve their own lives.

Based in Stamford, Conn., buildOn, a 20-year-old non-profit organization, provides a way for high school students to do volunteer work in their own communities and even in Third World outposts.

Henry Ford Academy’s buildOn group is entering its sixth year. Last year they had almost 40 active student volunteers.

Faculty advisor Marie Whybark said that unlike sports or some extracurricular activities, a student’s grades do not exclude them from participation in buildOn.

Henry Ford Academy students are required to fulfill 40 community service hours to graduate. Whybark said that many of the school’s buildOn student volunteers exceed 40 hours of service by the end of their freshman year, and some seniors have performed more than 1,000 hours of service by the time they graduate.

“It’s not based upon getting your community service, Nakayla Baskin-Simmons, a 15-year-old sophomore, said. “When you first join, you think that, but… when you see what other people are going through you think ‘this is a good direction to be heading into’… If you’re a loving person, this is for you.”

Whybark said parents are relieved that their teens are participating in a safe, supervised and well-established volunteer program.

Adult facilitators said buildOn teaches team-building and leadership skills while introducing teens to social activism and other cultures.

“We teach the kids a lot about education around the world (and) some of the challenges that are facing other countries,” Whybark said.

The global branch of buildOn, called Trek for Knowledge, enables students to fundraise in the U.S. for literacy projects and then actually build schools in developing nations. The Third World recipients then commit to staffing and maintaining the schools. Nationally, Trek also sponsors school buildings and literacy projects in Malowi and Nicaragua.

“They go into a community that’s never had a school, so there’s really little opportunity for children to get an education there,” Whybark said.

Whybark said one HFA student volunteer went to the African republic of Mali and lived with a host family under primitive conditions to start building a school.

“So there are kind of two facets,” Whybark said. “We try to get kids involved locally, and then for kids who are really interested they can… do Trek. It’s all paid for; all they have to do is buy their passport and get their immunizations… it’s really a fabulous opportunity.”

Whybark added that buildOn is also valuable because the teens learn leadership skills.

“They are really supposed to run the meetings and take ownership of it,” Whybark said. “Keisha (Brooks, adult buildOn program coordinator) and I are there to support them, lead them in the right direction when they need it and we often supply some of the activities and things, but it’s really their student group.”

At their Tuesday meetings, students hear about upcoming community service events, which take place predominantly on weekends.

Rodney Gaston, a 15-year-old sophomore, said serving food at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit had an impact on him.

“I had never really been to areas like that before,” Gaston said. “I’ve been in nice neighborhoods… seeing that made me think a little bit differently.”

Gaston logged 42 hours of service as a freshman, and plans to keep volunteering because he enjoys it.

Whybark said there is an ongoing project almost every weekend at Clark Park in Detroit’s southwest Mexican town neighborhood, where teen volunteers recycle and clean up the park. Other volunteer opportunities have included helping at community and senior centers, and at food pantries and soup kitchens.

The Henry Ford Academy buildOn group does some volunteer activities on its own and some with other groups, and that there are many opportunities to serve throughout the year. She said different school buildOn groups may work together on large community projects.

“Last year our big service project in the spring was we went to a neighborhood in Detroit and we planted about 200 trees,” Whybark said. “The kids really liked that they could see the difference. It was a very hands-on, concrete, get-involved kind of activity.”

Whybark said that residents thanked the student tree planting volunteers personally.

“Our goal is for the kids to get involved and stay involved,” Whybark said. “And the kids who do really feel the benefits of it, they really feel a part of the community and they form a lot of close friends and they meet people from other schools and are really a positive part of what’s going on.”

Whybark added that positive examples of teen volunteers are important to counter the negative reports of young people that circulate.

“People don’t see young people out really trying to make those positive changes every day, and we have dozens and dozens of kids who do just that… Not teenagers who are hanging out, causing trouble and that kind of stuff,” Whybark said. “But kids who do care and they show it because they come and make a difference.”