“Growing up, I was taught to leave this world a better place than I found it,” says Victoria Buendia-Serrano ’23, founder and CEO of Forming Futures, a non-profit created to help underserved New Yorkers.
She, together with a team of six Dwight high school students and many more volunteers, are doing just that. Through Forming Futures, they are creating and donating kits containing basic daily necessities to help children and families in need — families for whom the pandemic has extracted an especially high toll.
The Spark That Ignited Forming Futures
“In 2020 when my friend, Sandra Garcia Medrano, who is a public school teacher [and now a Forming Futures Advisory Board member], told me that one of her students was sharing a notebook with his older brother because his family couldn’t afford to buy two notebooks, I felt that I had to do something about it,” reports Victoria. Her response was Forming Futures, which she developed through Spark Tank, Dwight’s incubator, and has since expanded also with the help of Advisory Board members, donors, and partners.
A Spark Tank veteran, Victoria was quick to put her incubator experience to work mapping a plan, recruiting team members, and procuring school supplies, thanks to initial Spark Tank funding from The Dwight School Foundation. Additional supplies have since been purchased with money from online donations and through Staples Connect’s back-to-school supply drive. Volunteers began assembling them into backpacks — each with a personal handwritten note of encouragement in both English and Spanish — and Forming Futures started distributing them to public school students in June 2021 and later at events hosted by institutions that serve low-income families. The Forming Futures team has always wanted to connect with recipients directly at these events, as Victoria explains, “It’s really important to us that the community knows that we care and are personally involved.”
One distribution event was held at PS 236X in the Bronx, where the Assistant Principal, Donna Wright-Bauer, shared, “After the backpack giveaway (which was a heart-warming event!), it was so wonderful to see so many of our students come to school the next day sporting their blue backpacks. Thank you so much for your generosity and supporting our students and community.”
In addition to school supply kits, Forming Futures procures the contents for, assembles, and distributes hygiene kits. Stacy Stewart, Director of Runaway and Homeless Youth Services at The Door, underscores how essential these items are: “Basic necessities, like the hygiene kits donated by Forming Futures, are incredibly important. It might not always be obvious that these types of products can really make a difference and are extremely helpful. I’m glad Forming Futures understands what young people need and can use.”
Students Grow Along with the Organization
These testimonials, which are shared on Forming Future’s website, are just two of many that express how Dwight students are having a positive impact on fellow New Yorkers. The corollary of that is also true: the experience of being part of Forming Futures has had a positive impact on its leaders. Vice President Matthew Archer-Nieto ’23 relates, “I have grown a lot as a person ever since Victoria approached me about joining Forming Futures. I started by just working on the website and after some time realized that I was doing a lot more, researching what kinds of kits were needed, where we wanted to distribute them, and how we were going to tackle things as an organization. Being the Vice President is the biggest leadership role that I've ever taken on and I’ve learned a great deal.”
Both Matthew and Victoria, who have been at Dwight for 13 and 16 years respectively, have participated in some of our School’s community service programs, citing two examples: their visits to elderly residents of Phelps House in Lower School and their grade 7 trip to help Meals on Wheels deliver food to homebound elderly who are isolated. “This spirit of giving to the community was inherent in our Dwight experience and really instilled in us from a young age, so Forming Futures wouldn’t be here without Dwight. We’re really proud of our School’s track record of service,” Victoria says. “Dwight is also one of our greatest partners in enabling us to develop our entrepreneurial skills and the organization itself through Spark Tank.”
In less than two years, Forming Futures has grown considerably and has donated 44,067 products to 2,445 families to date. The team hopes to add another 800-1,000 hygiene kits and 800 backpacks by the end of the year. During Dwight’s recent Service Week, Forming Futures held volunteer packing and note-writing events to assemble 300 of those kits.
“We've also grown in terms of who we distribute through or connect with. Those connections are key,” explains Victoria. “At first it was just schools, then we added shelters, and now we also distribute through religious communities, though we’re non-sectarian.” Part of that growth has come from the organization’s connection to public school district nine, one of New York City’s poorest districts. She continues, “We're close with one of the family support coordinators for the district’s 32 schools, Yadira Eleutice, who we call to see which schools are most in need. It's a lot about fostering human connection not only with the people we donate to at in-person events, but also with those at ground zero who help coordinate kit distributions.”
After one such event at P.S. 170X in the South Bronx, Ms. Eleutice wrote, “This team’s mission is beautiful. The love in the handwritten notes. I felt overcome with emotion. With all the sadness in the world, it’s so beautiful to see there is still so much compassion, kindness, and love.”
Another person at ground zero is Father Fabian Arias, the pastor of Saint Peter’s Church in Corona, Queens, who has coordinated kit distributions to his community members. Father Fabian recently told the team that he's been seeing a need for clothing for people of all ages, so Forming Futures hosted a clothing drive during Service Week to help his parish.
Forming Futures wants to continue growing in other ways. “At this point, this is more of a dream, but I really want to start developing infant care kits, as raising children is so incredibly expensive,” Victoria reports. “Infant kits are also considerably more expensive than the others, so we have to plan in advance and put the funding aside, but I want to see if we can accomplish those things by the end of this year.”
Advice for Fellow Student-Entrepreneurs
Spark Tank has played a significant role in the success of Forming Futures to date and in Victoria’s Dwight journey. She shares some insights for students considering diving in: “Having gone through several ideas and many stages, I’ve found that the Spark Tank process is very helpful and requires you to be organized and get your ducks in a row early on. The experience really helped me reach that point in my life where I can make decisions quickly. It also gives you room to change and go in another direction if you want or need to. From the idea to the plan stage, you have a lot of creative liberties and freedom to make things more efficient; and from the plan to the prototype stage, you still have room to incorporate the experts’ feedback and evolve even more. That feedback is invaluable, as is the validation that you’re on the right track.”
Victoria and Matthew have high hopes for what they can accomplish through Forming Futures not only this year, but also beyond graduation. They want to see the organization continue at Dwight under the leadership of team member Allegra Masterson ’24 and her classmates, as well as establish branches at the colleges they will attend next fall. Victoria, who has always been interested in entrepreneurship and business, wants to continue bringing new ideas to the table and fostering their growth, so she’s considering studying economics with the possibility of pursuing venture capitalism in the future. Matthew’s interest lies in political science and he will see where this academic path takes him. One thing is for sure, as Victoria asserts: “Our work was started because of the pandemic, but that does not mean it will end when the pandemic is over.”
With such a strong commitment, we have no doubt about that!