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Laying the foundation, Leah Ouellet (AB '13) and 17 Detroit teens build a Malawi school

November 27, 2015

As the plane hummed on the runway at Detroit Metro Airport, 17 anxious teenagers fidgeted in their seats, peering through the drawn window shades.

“Are we in the air yet?”

It was the third time Leah Ouellet (AB ‘13) had heard the same question. And though odd, it was understandable. A number of the Detroit-area students traveling with her had never flown before. And now they were embarking on a 29-hour journey to Africa, where they would spend two weeks building a village school alongside local residents in Malawi.

When the plane eventually did take off, some of Ouellet’s companions could see their own school on Detroit’s southwest side, a sight she describes as “a great metaphor” for the journey to come.

Ouellet works at Detroit’s Western International High School as a program coordinator for buildOn, an international non-profit that works to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service-learning programs. Detroit is one of six urban areas the Connecticut-based organization works with in the U.S.

Leah Ouellet and Che’Kenya Goodwin
Photo of Leah Ouellet (AB ‘13) and Che’Kenya Goodwin

In July 2015, Ouellet headed to Malawi, accompanied by a diverse group of teenagers (from her own school and others) that she describes as service-oriented, open-minded, and hard-working. She helped some of the students’ parents navigate many of the logistics to clear them for travel with buildOn’s Trek for Knowledge Program, even acquiring luggage and sneakers as needed.

“They’re living in extreme poverty in Malawi but there’s extreme poverty here as well,” Ouellet says.

Once on the ground in Malawi, Che’Kenya Goodwin, age 16, faced conditions far different than those in urban Detroit. She slept on a thin floor mat in the home of her host family and used an outdoor latrine. And like many of her fellow students, she experienced stomach aches from the strange new foods.

But once she saw how “much [education] means to people who don’t have it,” she says, “you don’t take your options for granted. It gave me the strength to keep moving.” By the third day of the build, the American teenager was walking through the work site singing Disney songs exuberantly, a “joyful presence” on the team, says Ouellet.

At age 19, just a few years older than the students she now accompanies, Ouellet traveled to Tanzania to work with incarcerated youths. Once she developed an appreciation for Detroit through a Ford School course offered by Professor Emeritus Ren Farley, she found that buildOn offered an ideal opportunity to foster community service both at home and overseas.

Many of my students haven’t been afforded the opportunity to travel abroad, let alone outside their state, Ouellet says. “Now they want to travel more, join the Peace Corps, and study abroad in college.”

Leah Ouellet is from lake Orion, MI; she now lives on Detroit’s east side.

By Julie Halpert for Michigan Today

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2015 State & Hill here.