Katlin Sullivan lays a brick at the school site in Villa Kokomo.

'Amazing experience'

Student volunteers from UD buildOn chapter construct schoolhouse in Nicaragua


10:19 a.m., Nov. 12, 2014--For University of Delaware student Katlin Sullivan, a volunteer trip to Nicaragua was “by far the most amazing experience of her life.” For one week, she and 12 other UD students helped to build a primary school in a small community near Matagalpa. 

Sullivan, a senior in human services, was able to partake in this incredible experience through buildOn, an international nonprofit organization that runs youth service afterschool programs in United States high schools, and builds schools in developing countries. 

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Sullivan first became involved with buildOn through Dan Rich, University Professor of Public Policy, the semester before the student organization came to the UD campus. She then connected with Elizabeth Burland, founder of UD’s buildOn chapter, and later served as its community service chair.

Much of the buildOn chapter’s efforts focus on fundraising to support construction of the primary school it sponsors each year. “This takes a lot of coordination and effort,” Sullivan said, “because funding one primary school costs $30,000. We managed to accomplish this in our very first year on campus.”

What makes buildOn unique is that while chapters fundraise to supply the construction materials for major building projects, it is the community members themselves who provide the labor to construct the school. Ministries of education within the countries then provide teachers, supplies and continuing support so that buildOn schools are sustainable.

The UD buildOn chapter does not organize trips abroad. However 13 members of the chapter applied and were accepted to join Trek to Nicaragua, a program sponsored by the national organization. 

Sullivan explained that buildOn does not just send money but also strives to make connections and build relationships across cultures and languages. She said she certainly developed a greater appreciation for the importance of education at home and abroad. 

“Part of the journey was experiencing the culture shock, meaning the poverty and living conditions of our host families and the community we lived in,” said Sullivan. “But an even greater part was getting to see all of the things we had in common, such as the importance we place on education, family, hard work and religion.”

Students stayed in Villa Kokomo with host families, working half the day on the school construction site and the other half doing cultural workshops. At the site they worked alongside community members and even got to lay a brick each on the last morning in the community. 

BuildOn is unique in that it requires its schools to educate boys and girls equally and to offer adult literacy education classes. The community members of Villa Kokomo told the students how important education was to them and that they felt this primary school would raise their community up for generations to come. 

On the last day in the village, Sullivan’s host mother told her that as women, she and her colleagues were “an inspiration to her and her daughters and that we would always be her daughters even after we go home.” In those five short days she said she felt like a member of the community.

Philadelphia Day of Service

In October, UD’s buildOn chapter participated in a project closer to home as part of Philadelphia’s Day of Service. 

“Our members are concerned with educational equality abroad and in our local community,” said Anne Gould, president of the chapter. “A lot of what we do during our meetings is discuss the importance of education. This semester we are focusing on what is going in Philadelphia public schools, which are severely underfunded and essentially failing.”

They partnered with Furness High School, one of Philadelphia’s buildOn afterschool programs to work on murals and other school beautification projects. Several hundred people were in attendance, including City Year corps members, local business leaders and community members.

Sullivan said these experiences have reinforced her career goals. She plans to attend a graduate social work program in fall 2015 and become a licensed clinical social worker, working in the field of child welfare, foster care, and other areas concerning youth at risk. “I am definitely interested in working with something related to educational equality in the future,” she said.

Article by Sara Penchina

Photos by Helen Burland, Ryan Nishimoto, Heydi Blandon, Katlin Sullivan and Annie Gould

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