As a high school student at the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice (BLGJ), Sorangel Liriano impacted the lives of hundreds of New York City residents by serving her community with buildOn. When she graduated from BLGJ in 2014, she had plenty of service to be proud of — cooking meals at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, helping children with disabilities, tutoring and mentoring elementary school students — but Sorangel had one major regret. She never got to build a school.
When Sorangel started attending Columbia University the following fall, she figured she was done serving with buildOn and she would never have a chance to build a school in a developing country. Searching for other ways to stay involved with service, she attended the university’s activities fair and was surprised and overjoyed to discover that Columbia had a buildOn Global Community Team.
Like all of buildOn’s Global Community Teams, the Columbia team’s mission is to build schools in developing countries as part of buildOn’s Trek program and advocate on behalf of the world’s 900 million illiterate people. By joining, Sorangel made up for missing out on Trek in high school by going on not one, but two Treks over the course of her first two years at Columbia, with a third scheduled for later this year.
Sorangel’s decision to join a buildOn Global Community Team took her to Haiti as a freshman, Nepal as a sophomore, and now, as a junior, Sorangel will be traveling to Malawi in May 2017.
“I wasn’t aware that buildOn actually had Community Teams,” Sorangel says. “So when I saw the Columbia University buildOn information table at our activities fair, I literally went right to it.” Her decision to join took her to Haiti as a freshman, Nepal as a sophomore, and now as a junior, Sorangel will be traveling to Malawi in May 2017.
Above: Sorangel (right center, wearing a pink shirt and white hat) poses for a photo on the worksite in Haiti with her Community Team and with community members.
But Sorangel has been more than just an active member of her Community Team. By the time her sophomore year at Columbia rolled around, the Political Science and Human Rights double-major had already become co-president of her Community Team. “Our Community Team could not continue unless someone took on the leadership of being president, and so right then I jumped on the opportunity because I wanted buildOn to continue its legacy at Columbia,” Sorangel explains.
“I’ve participated in other programs where I’ve had host families, and although I couldn’t understand much of the language, [going to Nepal with buildOn] was one of the closest experiences and relationships I’ve built anywhere that I’ve been around the world.”
Going on a Trek as a Community Team is no easy feat, as members raise all the money needed to build a school themselves. As co-president of the Columbia Community Team, Sorangel is an avid and innovative fundraiser, doing everything from selling brownies door-to-door in the dorms to reaching out to mentors at companies like Apple and the MacQuarie Group to match the team’s fundraising efforts.
“One of the things we do is partner with local schools,” Sorangel says. “We reach out to them, and give a presentation about buildOn, and then that school agrees to host a fundraising event in our name.”
Sorangel refers to the two Treks that she has been on — first to Haiti in May 2015, and then to Nepal in March 2016 — as two of the greatest experiences of her college career. Her Trek to Nepal was especially meaningful because of the bond that she created with her host mother, Kalpana.
“My host mom really, really liked pictures, so throughout our time there I took Polaroid pictures of her and the family and everything that was going on,” Sorangel says. “Then at the end of our trip, I surprised her with an album of all of the Polaroid pictures. She was really happy. When I was presenting it, I never cry in front of people, but I couldn’t stop crying.”
Their bond must have also meant a lot to Kalpana, because at the end of the Trek, Kalpana had Sorangel wear one of her own traditional dresses to the closing ceremony. “I’ve participated in other programs where I’ve had host families, and although I couldn’t understand much of the language, that was one of the closest experiences and relationships I’ve built anywhere that I’ve been around the world,” says Sorangel.
Even though the relationships created between Trek members and the community are incredibly meaningful, the sustainability and impact of Trek is what keeps driving Sorangel to build another school. By empowering community members to be a part of the entire school construction process, and by using local materials to construct the school, buildOn’s Trek program is different than any other global development program that Sorangel has been a part of in the past. “It is important because the countries we work in have really low literacy rates and high poverty rates,” Sorangel says. “The sustainability [of the buildOn Trek program] is the reason I keep going back, and the fact that members of the community participate in making the project possible.”
Below: Sorangel stands with community members during her first Trek to Haiti.“When I’m on Trek, I don’t want to stop working,” Sorangel says. “Even if it is carrying rocks or digging a hole or something like that, it’s adding to the effort to construct the school for the community. That’s my main focus. Be involved with as much as I can with everything that’s going on.”