The money ran out, and Zach Meeink lost his anchor.
Build On, a national nonprofit that aims to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, has abruptly ended the program it operated successfully in several city high schools for 13 years.
Officials with the organization say they could not raise enough cash to sustain the Philadelphia after-school program, which they described as among their strongest in the country.
Build On students identify problems they see in their communities, then volunteer to repair them, helping children, the elderly, and the homeless.
In the auditorium of Bodine High School, Meeink and other students whose lives were changed by the program gathered Monday to mourn its loss, talk about what it had meant to them, and brainstorm ways to try to resurrect it.
This year, 1,178 Philadelphia students participated in the program, which operates mostly at Bodine, West Philadelphia, Furness and Delaware Valley Charter High Schools. The activity was not funded by the Philadelphia School District.
To Meeink, a student at Furness, the program means everything. After a struggle with depression, Meeink said, he felt unmoored.
"Build On has saved my life," he said Monday.
When a Build On staffer approached Meeink and encouraged him to join, he figured he had nothing to lose. Three years later, he has spruced up parks, fed homeless people, gotten to know disabled veterans, and helped build a school in Haiti.
"It is an empowering thing to make a difference," said Meeink, who has designs on the Peace Corps before becoming a doctor. "Build On has made me see the world differently."
Karen Thomas, Bodine's principal, is not a crier, she said, but she was moved to tears by students' Build On stories.
"You have kids who have been in foster home after foster home, and they say, "I feel like Build On is my purpose,' " Thomas said. "These kids have already lost too much."
Carrie Pena, a Build On spokeswoman, said the program could not raise enough local cash to continue operating. In the past, money raised in other Build On cities had supplemented locally raised dollars, but that couldn't continue, she said.
Last year, Build On Philadelphia's budget was $410,000, only $90,000 of which was raised locally. It would take about $100,000 to resurrect the program for the rest of this school year.
"It breaks our heart," Pena said. "Our programs in Philadelphia are some of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the country, but we just weren't able to find the support in Philadelphia."
Philadelphia students have contributed 151,524 volunteer hours to address social problems, but also helped build schools in Haiti, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Senegal, officials said.
"For a kid who doesn't get out of their neighborhood to get the chance to go to Africa or Nepal, they come back knowing they can be whatever they want, and understanding the importance of education," Pena said.
Bodine senior Nawnora Manosca said the program had transformed her.
Friends urged her to join the program as a sophomore, and Build On quickly became more than just an after-school activity.
"It's a huge part of my identity," Manosca said. "Learning about other people's struggles, you know your problems are small. And now our family is breaking up."
Manosca and others at the Monday rally said they hoped they could revive the program, but if not, they would like to start their own nonprofit doing work inspired by Build On.
"It's all in our hands," Manosca said.
Build On officials had hoped to keep the program going through the end of the school year, but realized they didn't have the cash, Pena said. The organization still has programs in six cities across the country.
"This is a really hard decision for the organization," Pena said. "Our Philly students are incredible change-makers; we wish we had been able to stay."