After nine months of fund-raising, high school students from the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics traveled halfway around the world to a small village in Mali, in West Africa, in July to help build a school -- a school that they paid for.
The high school, on Fulton Avenue in Morrisania, took on the school construction project in partnership with BuildOn, a nonprofit organization that provides in-class and after-school service programs for American students and turns their energy into action at home and abroad.
The students at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics raised $74,000, most of it from foundation grants and corporate donations. The students raised $10,000 of that by holding bake sales and organizing creative fund-raising projects, like asking their fellow students to buy a brick or a door for the school.
Missy Shields, the New York regional manager for BuildOn, who organizes the after-school program at the Bronx Center, approached the assistant principal, Madeline Rios, with the idea for the project a year ago. While it seemed daunting at first, Ms. Rios said the students took on the challenge.
The high school, which has 423 pupils in grades 9 through 12, requires students to complete 300 hours of community service before they graduate. About 40 students participate in the school's BuildOn club, and 13 students, a few from each grade, were selected to make the trip based on their participation in the club and essays they were asked to submit.
Construction of the school cost $32,000, and the students also raised money for their 13 representatives to travel to Africa to build it, at a cost of $1,800 a ticket. At first, the thought of raising enough money seemed impossible to some of the students.
“It was kind of surreal each time they announced how much we had raised,” said Sakile Broomes, 17, who will be a senior this year at the Bronx Center.
But raising all that money was just part of the challenge. Once the group arrived, there was the construction itself to do. The students and some residents of the village worked together on the structure.
“It’s just an amazing thing to have young kids give back and do this kind of work. They were absolutely inspiring in Africa,” Ms. Rios said. “It was really special for me to see how much they grew and changed in just 13 days.”
Construction is expected to be done in the next few weeks, with the school in operation by the end of the month.
Here, in part, are some of the students' written reflections of their time in Mali:
Mali! An amazing country, a different environment, a different breeze. When we arrived in Bamako, I was already able to smell the fresh air. The smell of Africa, some say. ... When we arrived, I couldn’t believe it. You could see the children dancing, clapping, laughing, and coming towards us. They sang with innocence, love, and respect. You already felt like home. ... I’m happy that now the parents will know that their children will have the life that they unfortunately were not able to have. They cherish school like gold, and many kids in America don’t see that. Overall, this is a moment in life that I would never change. Their kindness, humbleness, and sweetness takes you away from this cruel world. It takes you to a wonderful place, a place that makes you feel safe, happy, and always at home. We came to our home, and we left our home.
...My most memorable moment was the final ceremony. This was an emotional, loving moment since it was our last night together. The people from the village of Bla love to dance and their incredible dancing stays stuck in my head. The best part was the fact that we were all dancing together with our host families, the villagers and just having a great time. We would dance for a long time especially with the children by our side. I could still hear the drums, the music and sounds of laughter and singing from that night. This final ceremony has made me realize all valuable lessons I learned during this experience, such as not taking things for granted and that one person can make a difference. ...
My trip to Mali became more than just a mission to spread education once my team and I arrived at our village, called Bla. Before we were able to get out of our van we were greeted by the villagers chanting "BuildOn" to the beat of drums. It was an exhilarating feeling to be greeted with so many genuine smiles and laughter. Children began to escort us to our welcoming ceremony by the hand without hesitation that it surprised me how they were fearless to show affection. I had a little girl sit next to me on the ground with her eyes glued to my face, smiling that I couldn’t help but put my hands over her shoulders. It was then that I realized that any barrier can be crossed between two cultures with a simple smile and laughter into friendship.
... The children were so sweet, and they always wanted to hold my hand. Their smiles were so beautiful, and even if I didn’t speak their language I still felt like I understood them because of the way they communicated with me. Being with the community members was awesome; they were so sweet and nice. They would always greet me and see if I’m O.K., they always had a smile on their face. ... I will never forget the strength of the women, men and children in the village, and how hard they have to work every day on the farm and chores. The people in my village, which is call Bla, are awesome and I will never forget them.
My three favorite things in Mali were first the feeling of being so safe; in Mali the people are so nice to you. My second was the hard work and effort you have to put in, it can make you strong in no time. My third thing I liked in Mali was being around people I know and people who loved me.