Luis Tapia changes seamlessly from the calm and clear spoken leader of the Washington Heights community group, Give.Be.Grow, to a youthful and jovial college student with a curled mohawk at the top of his head and Kermit the Frog sneakers on his feet. At the heart of these two personalities is a desire for positive change in the community of Washington Heights, his home neighborhood. He persistently voices messages of hope and help for his fellow youth, which makes Tapia an effective leader for progressive change.
But Tapia hates labels. They are limiting and underscore his philosophy of eternal individual growth. It is that belief that explains why the “Grow” in Give.Be.Grow goes without punctuation.
“There is no period after growth because there is no end to growth,” he said.
What makes him different from most 22-year-olds is that Tapia has the community service experience of a man twice his age. Moving around between Washington Heights and the Bronx, he has participated with organizations like ArtStart and Fresh Youth Initiatives. It was in Fresh Youth where he learned the most by being a youth board member, learning the ins and outs of community organizations.
However, Tapia feels there is one major problem with many community organizations.
“Most of these programs go with you from ages 11-17 and then after 17 you’re left out,” he explains. “I feel that it was a pivotal point in a young person’s life that they should have included people in the age group so anyone who is at that age can continue going through that process and become successful.”
So he and seven other childhood friends started Give.Be.Grow. It is essentially for college-age students that many organizations tend to overlook or ignore. The transition period, where the young people stop being participants and start becoming leaders, is essential to Tapia and his friends’ intentions in aiding the youth. It is during that transition that Give.Be.Grow provides them with the tools and knowledge to ensure that they continue to give back to their communities by starting their own organization through social entrepreneurship.
Tapia is well aware of how important college is with the resources that are granted to him. As a Human Services major at St. John’s, he has asked his professors for legal advice and uses the Institute for Writing Studies for aid in the meticulous wording of grant proposals.
“I think that college is one of the best times in your life to start an organization,” Tapia said. “I think a lot of students don’t realize how much free time they have in the day.”
Rolando Caraballo, fellow founder of Give.Be.Grow believes college has aided Tapia.
“I believe the course work that he’s taking now along with the support of his teachers have provided him with very valuable assets to this organization,” Caraballo said of his friend.
Tapia reminisces about the summer that he came to the realization that he and his friends could be doing more with their time than simply going out and socializing.
“Thursday, me and my friends would get dressed up, go to a house party, then go to the beach from the morning to noon, and then come back to the dorms and then go back to another party,” Tapia recalled. “So from Thursday to Sunday we’d do that and it’d be a recurring cycle. It was cool for a while but then we realized we had so much time on our hands.”
Apparently other students realize this as well. Give.Be.Grow’s Facebook group boasts 181 members who, according to both Tapia and Caraballo, participate regularly in Give.Be.Grow events. Mobilizing students through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace display the boys’ knowledge of how to effectively communicate to their fellow youth.
During the member meetings of Give.Be.Grow, anyone can see that the enthusiasm of these young men is incomparable and contagious. Their meetings, usually held in the living room of one of the members’ apartments, are filled with inside jokes and good-natured ribbings.
However, Tapia is always there to make sure they get back to the topic at hand by slamming down what he affectionately called his D.W. (Do Work) pen, like a gavel. Tapia refers to these sorts of gems of wisdom to get his point across.
“Luis is very smart and he comes up with an easier way to say something,” Caraballo explained. “He uses a lot of metaphors to make other people think. When he says ‘D.W.,’ he wants people to do work because he believes that no one is going to do something for you, you have to do it yourself.”
Tapia constantly stresses the importance of getting the kinks worked out early and not waiting for something to go wrong to work out a solution.
“He’s an excellent leader and an excellent communicator,” Caraballo said. “He’ll always motivate us to do more than what we are required to do. We’re not just meeting our goals, we’re exceeding our goals and a lot of that has to do with Luis.”
Up next on the Give.Be.Grow agenda is the annual AIDS walk on May 20. In the mean time, Tapia and his fellow founders are planning more events for people to give back. There is nothing unrealistic when it comes to his goals for Give.Be.Grow because Tapia receives so much support and knows enough through his experiences to not let little details be the gum that mucks up the works of his operation. It is his attention to detail that makes it easy to believe that when he says, “I want to change the world but I have to start at Washington Heights.”
And he will.