After 13 years of service-learning, buildOn is leaving Philly schools

 BuildOn students from area schools leaving Bodine High School for International Affairs (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

BuildOn students from area schools leaving Bodine High School for International Affairs (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Football. Debate team. Theatre. High school students flock to extracurricular projects that mold their identities. For the last 13 years, hundreds of Philadelphia students have had another option: buildOn.

BuildOn is a international non-profit “working to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations.” It started as a project to build schools in low-income countries like Malawi and Nicaragua, but founder and CEO Jim Ziolkowski expanded the work to the United States when he saw an opportunity to implement service-learning projects in high-poverty urban areas like those in Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Oakland.

In Philadelphia, the organization has full-time offices in West Philadelphia High School and Horace Furness High School, as well as satellite programs drawing students from Delaware Valley Charter School and Bodine High School for International Affairs. On March 18th, buildOn is closing down its Philadelphia school programs after 13 years of service learning.

Between the schools, over 400 students participate in weekly service events like trash cleanups and visits to nursing homes for a total of about 2,500 service hours each month.

According to a release from the non-profit, BuildOn is leaving the area due to “insufficient direct funding.” On a call with students last week, the groups leadership explained it has long had trouble bringing in donors and grants locally.

While it called its Philadelphia programs some of its “most successful” in terms of participation, the organization’s leadership stressed in a conference call to students that it’s been “supplementing its budget [in Philadelphia] from the organization’s general operating funds” for years.

“It’s not your fault,” said managers on the call.

Still, many students expressed wishes that they could have been notified of the group’s decision earlier in the year so that they could have been more involved in fundraising.

“Funding is a problem we are no stranger to here in Philadelphia,” said Bodine senior Nawnora “Nora” Manosca, expressing frustration over the lack of school support options after years of budget deficits in the school district.

Manosca said she would have raised money to keep the program going – at least through the end of the year – if she had known buildOn would be leaving.

Other students – and school administrators – agreed. “It feels like all of our opportunities are being taken away,” said Brandon Scofield, senior at Delaware Valley Charter High School. “BuildOn was one of like the last resorts we had.”

At a meeting in Bodine’s auditorium, many students shared stories about what finding a place at BuildOn has meant to them.

Zach Meeink, a senior and president of Furness’ buildOn chapter, said he started attending buildOn events when he was depressed, “really just to get out of the house.” Two years later, he became president because, “I wanted to give all I had to buildOn.”

Several other students, like Izaya Yi, 10th grader at Furness, and Refatun Momo, 11th grader at West Philadelphia High School, described finding a community in buildOn as a turning point in their lives.

“The kids can do it.”

Principals and local administrators of the program, not to mention students, want to at least finish out this years’ program and are drawing attention to the transformational effect on its students.

Regional manager for Buildon, Greg Lynch, said after the official end date of March 18th, he’ll do the administrative work for free if the kids can raise enough funds to pay for necessities, like bus tokens to the project sites.

“I think the kids can do it,” said Lynch. “I think they’re amazing, amazing leaders. They’re the type of students that can keep me on point….they’re more than capable of carrying on the work.”

Bodine principal Karen Thomas, principal of Bodine said by drawing attention to the program, the best case scenario is the schools keep buildOn. Worst case,”We create our own program and the public knows about it,” said Thomas.

Lynch said while he has to officially to wind down buildOn by March 18th, he expects to ramp up fundraising for the rest of the school year in the form of a crowd-sourcing in the next few weeks.

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