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(Editor’s note: This profile of BUILD’s Adam Alonso ran in the Weekly’s sister paper in Oak Park several weeks ago. To mark the Feb. 25 opening of the organization’s new 51,000 square foot, $21 million campus at Harrison and Laramie, we are offering it now.)

Although he took a detour from an initial plan to become a doctor, Adam Alonso is saving, or at least changing, lives nonetheless. As CEO of BUILD, a West Side nonprofit focused on gang intervention, violence prevention and youth development, Alonso and his team serve more than 2,500 vulnerable youth every year. His work was recently recognized by the inaugural Chicago Bears Inspire Change Changemaker Award. The award was accompanied by a $10,000 grant from the NFL Foundation, through Bears Care, a program that has partnered with BUILD since 2012.

Alonso was honored during a frigid half-time in the Dec. 24 Bears-Buffalo Bills game, in a live presentation viewed by thousands of fans. He particularly appreciates the award because of his desire to be a positive role model for the youth served by BUILD.

Adam Alonso CEO of BUILD

Alonso, an Oak Park resident for more than 20 years, grew up in Summit and graduated from Argo High School before enrolling in the University of Chicago’s pre-med program. Fairly quickly, he realized that he didn’t have the drive required to be a doctor. He graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies and joined the Peace Corps, with an assignment in Ecuador, but political unrest prevented his involvement. Instead, he took a job as a school-age director with Casa Central, a Hispanic social service agency serving children and adults.

“I took the position at Casa Central because I was desperate for a job, and they were desperate for warm bodies. After two years, I transitioned to a position managing the teen program. At that time, I thought I hated teenagers — I thought they were disrespectful and loud and I was afraid to engage with them. But I soon realized that I really did like them — and the messier they were, the more I liked them,” Alonso said.

Then, at the age of 24, Alonso experienced an epiphany that would change the course of his life. While working at Casa Central, which was operating out of the basement of a North Side church, a clearly distraught kid showed up looking for the pastor, who was not there at the time. As the boy walked away, an internal voice told Alonso to call him back.

He learned that the youth had a two-year-old, with another on the way, and had been homeless since the age of 11. His mother was a heroin addict and he saw his father shot and killed in a park. He was selling drugs and had smoked all his inventory and, in desperation, was planning to kill himself because he didn’t know what else to do.

“Hearing his story was so far out of the realm of my own life. I realized that there were people out there who suffered from a poverty of love and stable relationships, which is more devastating than economic poverty, and I was so grateful to have had a loving family, people who would hug me and ask me about my day and worry about my future. I understood that it was incumbent on me to do everything I could to support this young man,” Alonso said.

Alonso maintained a relationship with the youth, through years of ups and downs involving drugs and prison, until he was shot and killed.

“That relationship was my introduction to what Christianity really is. I was raised in the church but this taught me what it truly means to serve God by offering unconditional love. It was the defining moment for me. That relationship changed me from the inside out,” Alonso said.

The BUILD campus, expanded and updated, will open in February at Harrison and Laramie in Austin. | Courtesy of

Alonso joined BUILD as CEO in 2015 after a number of leadership positions with Chicago social services agencies. He was aware of the organization’s solid reputation. Founded in 1969, BUILD had grown to be one of the premier gang intervention agencies in the country. Under Alonso’s leadership, the organization has grown exponentially — in size, capacity, financial support and reputation.

When he took over, BUILD’s programming was scattered throughout schools on the West Side. Alonso quickly realized the value of offering comprehensive after-school programming in a central location in the Austin neighborhood.

“Offering programming in our own building allowed us to experiment and try new things. But we also knew that we needed to get out and introduce ourselves to our neighbors because no one knew us. We worked hard to thread ourselves into the fabric of the community by attending block parties, community meetings and work groups. We really embedded ourselves in the neighborhood,” Alonso said.

The organization began adding programs, including arts and woodworking, based on what young people were requesting. According to Alonso, staff operated under the assumption that, if they just got started and did things right, the money would follow.

However, in 2018, Alonso and his team realized that they needed more space. The board approved a 50,000-square-foot campus, combining renovated and new space, with a steadily increasing price tag — from $15 million to $18 million and then $21 million. Fundraising was halted in March 2020 by the pandemic. The campus is at Harrison Street and Laramie.

“In May, a $5 million grant from the state energized the campaign. And a $2 million commitment from a couple who really believed in the project convinced us to go full steam ahead. That $7 million made us realize, that, oh my gosh, we can absolutely do this!” Alonso said.

Alonso said while fundraising at this magnitude was uncomfortable for him — he had never led a capital campaign before — it was made easier by the urgent need to combat a growing rise in violence in the Austin neighborhood. Plans for the new campus were based on input from the young people BUILD serves, as well as from the community and staff.

The facility will ultimately cost almost $28 million and include art studios, a recording studio, a computer center, a mental health center, public café, and a full-size gym, all surrounded by green playfields and a community garden. A grand opening is scheduled for February.

Alonso expects the building to serve as an anchor for the Austin neighborhood — and to further his dream of saving, or at least changing, a few more lives.