36 hours in Detroit

36 Hours is a domestic cultural-exchange program that allows business leaders to travel to a buildOn school and “walk in the shoes” of U.S. students. This program was developed by buildOn, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations in the U.S and abroad through service and education. Last year, Mobile Beacon’s parent organization, NACEPF, began working with buildOn to build 10 schools in six developing countries. This year, Mobile Beacon is beginning its partnership with buildOn by supporting its service-learning programs in high schools across six U.S. regions.

By Katherine Messier, Executive Director, Mobile Beacon

Jones Day and Mobile Beacon 36 Hours in Detroit from buildOn on Vimeo.

At 6:30 am on Monday morning, I set out for Detroit to begin a 36-hour immersion program led by the students of Western International High School ready to learn about southwest Detroit from the very honest and personal accounts of students, teachers, and administrators and directly experience part of the change.

Around 2 pm, Mobile Beacon’s program director, Cristina Graham, and four attorneys from Jones Day were greeted by six students. I was immediately struck by their incredible and abounding energy. These are not your average teenagers. Each of these students is a force of nature, and once you enter their orbit, you are instantly lifted by their cheerfulness, humor, passion, and drive. I remember thinking, “I’m going to need coffee and my A-game because something special is about to happen.”

buildOn’s 36 Hour program pairs each volunteer with a Student Ambassador. My Student Ambassador was Robyn, a freshman at Western, who impressed me with her maturity and quiet determination. Out of the adversity she’s faced, Robyn has learned that service is the path to creating the change she wishes to see. More importantly, she’s actually making that change happen, along with 500 other buildOn students in Detroit every month.

Our first service project brought us to the home of local powerhouse Raquel, a Detroit resident who is using her property to create a community garden. As part of this neighborhood beautification effort, our group set out first to paint two benches and telephone poles, and second to clear out grass and weeds (a task that quickly exposed my total lack of aptitude for gardening) to plant raspberries to be enjoyed by other Detroit residents. Although it was a “choppy experience” for both me and the grass, I’m proud to say that I can now use a pickaxe to clear a small area of land!

The following day, we met with teachers and administrators at Western High who shared their own challenges in the face of low expectations, budget cuts, and seemingly ever-changing leadership. I admire their resilience and commitment to both their students and community. Then our buildOn Student Ambassadors held a round-table discussion and shared why they chose to lead lives of service and their plans to continue to develop themselves and their communities. Having witnessed the impact that these six brave, upbeat, and compassionate teenagers have made through the direct and positive way they confront challenges, I feel energized and compelled to follow their example.

The students took us on a bus-tour as they pointed out areas of hope, challenge, and pride throughout Detroit. I particularly enjoyed visiting the Cadillac Urban Garden, another community beautification project that buildOn students help support.

Afterward, we began our second service project at the Detroit Rescue Mission where we served dinner to many experiencing food insecurity. It was fast-paced and challenging to keep up with the rush as wave-after-wave of people entered, but it was also deeply satisfying knowing that we had helped meet a basic and critical need for these men and women that day.

We finished our 36 Hours at dinner in downtown Detroit where we shared highlights, affirmations, and hugs. A few flight delays later, I touched down in Rhode Island at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. However, instead of being exhausted, I’m still flying high from my short time in Detroit. To Robyn and the other buildOn students and staff, thank you for taking us on this amazing journey. The impact you’ve made on me will surely last beyond the 36 hours we spent together. I will do my best to live up to your example and spread some of that southwest Detroit moxie and heart into my work every day. Together, we will continue to change the world.

Photo courtesy of buildOn

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