By Sarah Pfeffer
Fourteen Sacred Heart University students built a school in Ghaila, western Nepal, in January on their first trip with SHU’s chapter of buildOn, a nonprofit organization that aims “to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education.” The 11-day trek also included cultural immersion and exchange.
Devin Towne ’18, president of SHU buildOn, said he enjoyed experiencing school life in another country and going “into the old classrooms in the village to teach the children American songs, dances and games. I have never seen that much joy and laughter in a classroom in my entire life.”
Kathleen Castrilli ’19, vice president of SHU buildOn, called the cultural immersion the most impactful aspect of her journey. “My favorite part was getting the opportunity to fully submerge myself in another culture. I found that going out of my comfort zone allowed me to learn so much about the community we were living in, my host family, my buildOn teammates and myself on a much deeper level,” she said.
In Ghaila, SHU students worked alongside villagers to prepare the ground and build the school’s foundation. “The villagers inspired us to continue pushing through even when we were exhausted from work,” said Grace Falvey ’20, SHU buildOn’s advertising co-chair. “I could look around and see the whole village had come out to help us and that motivated me to keep working as hard as I could.”
This collaboration had special significance. “These schools are constructed in partnership with the very people who benefit from them,” said Brian Stiltner, SHU buildOn co-adviser and professor of philosophy, theology and religious studies. “All the villagers had a ceremony and signed a commitment to say that they would support the school and educate girls on an equal 50/50 basis with boys.”
Kirsten Nestro, faculty adviser and adjunct instructor of religious and Catholic studies, noted that some used their thumb print as their signature because they are unable to read or write. “Across the globe, 20 percent of adults cannot read or write, and two-thirds of illiterate adults in developing countries are women,” she said. “My host mom, who learned to sign her name in adult literacy courses, said, ‘Even though I cannot read or write, I still have dreams for my children.’ As a group, we learned about the power of big dreams. Our students join buildOn because they believe in the power of education to fuel these dreams.”
The trip was a culmination of effort by all members of the SHU buildOn team. “Although 14 students traveled, the chapter as a whole raised funds to build the school,” explained Nestro. “The fundraising is one of the most challenging tasks—$30,000, plus the cost of travel is needed.”
Students raised the money through individual and group efforts, according to Towne. “There were organized group fundraisers that took place at local restaurants, churches and on campus. Each trip member also was encouraged to write letters, send emails and share their individual fundraising page on social media,” he explained.
Lucas Turner, buildOn’s east coast community engagement manager, worked closely with the SHU chapter, whose commitment impressed him. “Working with SHU students makes you a better person; they are stand-out humans because of their unwavering heart for others and their burning fire to take action to serve,” he said. “I could not be more impressed by the way the team energetically mobilized others throughout the fundraising and advocating phase of their journey. Proud would be an understatement of how I feel about the SHU buildOn team.”
According to buildOn’s website, the organization has built approximately 1,000 schools for more than 100,000 students of all ages in Burkina Faso, Haiti, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Nicaragua and Senegal since 1992. The organization also operates within the United States, and Sacred Heart has been taking the lead here. The buildOn initiative actually began in Connecticut, when resident Jim Ziolkowski founded it while in a management training program at General Electric (GE).
“The organization has received strong support from GE over the years,” said Stiltner. “Ziolkowski has spoken at SHU and was named Educator of the Year in 2015 from CAPP Fairfield County [the USA affiliate of the Vatican Foundation for Lay Catholic Leaders] in conjunction with Sacred Heart.”
Ziolkowski expressed pride in the work SHU students have done thus far, helping to “make real change through service.” He noted that, “every 26 seconds, a high school student drops out…and most come from very low-income communities, like in Bridgeport.” The buildOn CEO noted that 900 million people worldwide cannot read or write, and he commends SHU for being part of the change that is so needed. “In this context, we can see the incredible impact that Professor Nestro, Professor Stiltner and the students at SHU have made by partnering with buildOn,” he said. “The students at Sacred Heart found the courage, compassion and determination to serve alongside our students in Bridgeport and to build a school in Nepal. They have achieved true solidarity and helped to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations. This is cause for tremendous optimism and gratitude.”
Locally, SHU buildOn has partnered with Bridgeport’s Central and Bassick High Schools, and they hosted the Amnesty International Write for Rights Day last year “This partnership is something that the SHU chapter is pioneering with buildOn and may serve as a model for other colleges. Our students are doing truly groundbreaking work,” said Nestro.
The service learning program coordinator at buildOn, Arielle Polites, appreciates the way SHU students have collaborated with the organization. “Working with the SHU buildOn team has elevated my Bridgeport students’ experience of service. Through our partnership, we have brought Bridgeport buildOn youth and SHU buildOn members together to march against violence, write letters in support of human rights and advocate for global education equality. It has been so amazing to see my youth serve alongside college students; the SHU students have mentored my students on the college process and have inspired many to apply to SHU.”
Stiltner believes this first trip to Nepal is just the beginning for SHU buildOn. “The club is very energized and looks forward to building its next school in 2019,” he said.
Watch the Nepal “Trek” video here.