buildOn, Build Up: One Student’s Trek to Nicaragua


This summer, Keegan Pabst, a senior Social Work major at Siena Heights University, was able to spend 10 days of service in Nicaragua working with buildOn.

What is buildOn, one may ask?

According to its website, buildOn is a non-profit organization that works to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education.

Pabst has been involved with buildOn for three years, ever since it started its own Community Team at SHU. She was inspired by Jim Ziolkowski, buildOn’s founder and CEO.

“I read Ziolkowski’s book, Walk in Their Shoes, and heard him speak when he came to SHU in March of 2015.  I started to study the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations by reflecting on my own experiences and the stories in Ziolkowski’s book,” said Pabst.

She said service and education were values instilled by her mother, someone who is often quoted saying “an education is something that no one can ever take away from you,” according to Pabst.

As Pabst continued to learn more about buildOn’s service-learning programs for high school students in inner-cities across the country, she said she was able to relate because of her own personal transformation and motivation from serving others.

“Engaging in community service has allowed me to not only learn more about myself, but also about the world around me in being exposed to social injustice,” she said.

buildOn also works to break the cycle through their global school construction program, which is how Pabst was able to travel to Nicaragua last May. She was able to immerse herself into the culture and assist in the building of a school alongside members of the remote village of Makengue.

“My experience in Nicaragua is hard to sum up into a few words, but it is an experience that I know I will never forget as I was able to ‘walk in the shoes’ of community members,” she said.

Pabst admits she was worried about the language barrier prior to trek. However, once there, she was able to learn more about universal language as she ate alongside her host family, worked together on the work site, and played games together in the evening.

Two translators also traveled with Pabst’s group.

“I was able to hear from community members what the school meant to them, their family, and their community,” she said.

One of the big methodologies that buildOn stresses and prides itself on, is that it is not a charity, it is a movement, according to Pabst. At each location for the school, the community members and buildOn sign a covenant, establishing their partnership together.

“This partnership is important because it empowers the community and ensures the sustainability of buildOn schools,” she said.

The covenant, according to Pabst, specifies the roles and responsibilities of buildOn and the community. For example, buildOn promotes the importance of gender equality. The covenant requires that the community sends their girls to school in equal numbers with their boys.

On Pabst’s last work day, a community member shared that hosting them was the most rewarding part of the experience and that they would think of them when they sent their children to school.

“Leaving my host family and the community of Makengue was the hardest part of trek, but the connections and memories that I made in Nicaragua motivate me every day, inside and outside of the classroom, on and off campus,” Pabst said.

SHU students feeling inspired by Pabst’s journey can also help further the goals and mission of buildOn! The SHU buildOn Community Team was established shortly after Ziolkowski spoke at Siena. Since then, five students have been able to travel to Nicaragua on trek.

However, students don’t need to travel outside of the country to help break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty. The buildOn movement is so much more than that, according to Pabst, and community service is a good place to start.

Those who would like to make an impact, consider joining the Community Team at Siena. Organization meetings occur every other Thursday in Science Building room 45 at 9 p.m. The next meeting will be Oct. 5.

Pabst said she is more than excited for this year with buildOn at Siena and would love to see it expand before she leaves.

“The African proverb on the back of my trek 2017 shirt reads, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’” she said. “Bringing more people together to join the buildOn movement will only help to further the mission of buildOn.”