After struggling to have access to her own education, a University of Calgary student started the school-building project.
JENNIFER FRIESEN / FOR METRO
Azalea Lehndorff chose to leave home when she was only 14-years-old.
But, this isn’t your average story of teenage rebellion – Lehndorff left for the seemingly simple desire to go to school.
She and her sister were home schooled at an early age, but their mother battled a mental illness, which kept the family from settling down. They moved through the United States 26 times – living in an old hunting shack and a Winnebago – making it increasingly difficult for the girls to maintain their education.
So they took matters into their own hands.
They borrowed their mother’s address book and wrote to 90 of her friends asking if they’d help them go to school, and it worked.
It was a long road, but Lehndorff has realized her childhood dream of attending medical school, and now she’s paying it forward.
In 2010 she launched the 100 Classrooms Project, volunteering to help bring education to girls in Afghanistan.
“It was that understanding of knowing how much education could do for you,” she said.
“How much it could help you to contribute in society, and how much it could change your life and your future – but to feel like it’s out of reach. That was the driving force for me.”
In partnership with the Government of Afghanistan and A Better World Canada, Lehndorff’s project is building 100 classrooms in Afghanistan and aiming to improve the education infrastructure.
“Since the end of the Taliban regime it’s been a challenge for girls to have access to places that their families and the community would consider safe and appropriate for them,” she said.
“This means that they’re often kept from school. So many kids were trying to go back to school, but the country couldn’t keep up with providing the infrastructure, and there weren’t enough teachers.”
The idea for the project came to Lehndorff while she was finishing her undergraduate degree at the Canadian University College (now Burman University) in Lacombe.
As she inched closer to the moment when she would cross the stage, her mind fell upon all the people who helped her along the way.
“I started to think, ‘What if I could do that for someone else?’” she said. “So many people stepped in along the way to help me and my sister when we were on our own. I had just read this book about the needs in Afghanistan at the time and kept me up at night. Immediately, I thought ‘I have to do this.’”
And she did.
To date, the project has built 71 of the 100 classrooms, raised more than $800,000 and seen 15,300 students attend school.
Lehndorff has been to Afghanistan seven times, and by the time she completes medical school at the University of Calgary in 2018, she hopes to have every single one of the 100 classrooms completed.
“So many of those girls they have the same dreams I did,” she said, reflecting on the students she met in Afghanistan. “The difference between me and them is that they don’t have the same opportunities I had here. It’s powerful to be able to make a difference, even in any small way. It taught me that, no matter what, we should do what we can to help.”
Lehndorff received the Canadian Medical Association National Award for Young Leaders last month. This video was presented by the CMA at the awards night.