There are 87 backpacks and 128 pair of shoes in the basement of Leah Muskin-Pierret’s house in Silver Spring. She’s hoping to double the donations by the end of May.
Last summer, 16-year-old Leah traveled to the Dominican Republic, an island nation just 2,000 miles from the U.S, where 30 percent of the people live in poverty.
She was surprised to learn that countless children, including many refugees from neighboring Haiti, can’t go to school simply because they can’t afford the backpacks and shoes they need to be admitted.
This seemed like a problem that her relatively affluent community could help solve, reasoned Leah, and she named her effort the “Passport to School” project. She organized a donation drive at her old school, Woodlin Elementary, and her religious community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). Some of her neighbors promised backpacks too. The donations keep coming in.
“When we first arrived in the Dominican Republic, we drove away from the airport past a jumble of brightly colored, ramshackle houses,” said
Leah. “One of the other students (on the trip sponsored by Global Leadership Adventures) said, ‘It’s sad, but in America, those kind of houses would be condemned,’ and we all agreed.”
A child in the Dominican Republic smiles up at a volunteer
“What we also noticed right away,” continued Leah, “is that while they might be sweating, they sit out on the porch, they wave ‘hi’, and they talk to each other (in person, not though Facebook). It’s not like here, where kids are inside their separate houses, playing separate electronic games.” In her blog she wrote: “Wealth satisfies our superficial side. But it also alienates.”
Leah’s interest in the developing world began when she took a Girl Scout trip to Costa Rica as a thirteen-year-old. The trip gave her a new awareness of the environmental degradation and poverty that plague many Central American countries. She was motivated to travel more and, as a sophomore, she was on the lookout for adventure travel with a service component. But most trips seemed too expensive. Through “the magic of
the Internet” (Leah’s phrase), she stumbled upon an essay contest that would reward the winner with a scholarship to travel to the Dominican
Republic. At just 500 words, it seemed within reach.
“I was on it immediately,” said Leah. And she won.
In August, contest winner Leah joined a group of 23 kids headed for the Dominican Republic (DR) for eight days. All her expenses were paid, and
the only requirement was that she blog about her experience. You can read her blog at leahfoundintranslation.wordpress.com.
High school volunteers help rebuild houses in the Dominican Republic.
The service component of the trip had Leah and her high school friends building new walls and floors for island homes and helping Peace Corps
volunteers with water projects. One such water project required the students to hike up to a Brison, a mountain community where villagers, including young kids, typically spend 30 to 60 minutes a day ferrying water.
“We took a trip up carrying water too, so we could get a sense of their daily reality,” said Leah. “Of course the local nine-year-olds were much faster than we were . . .” she says, her voice trailing off.
A student volunteer jumps into the water in the Dominican Republic.
It’s hard to believe that anyone leaves Leah behind, given the energy she’s brought to fund raising efforts like the annual walk for the homeless, or the tree-planting project she initiated and led when she was just 13. And now — soliciting donations for kids in the DR. She tackles all of these with an eye towards involving others, and a determination to make a difference.
A student volunteer helps rebuild a house in the Dominican Republic.
Julia Jarvis, minister of the interfaith community Leah belongs to, describes Leah as extraordinary, and recounts a recent conversation:
“One day I stopped Leah in the midst of her telling me about the backpack project and asked her, ‘Leah, do you take time to rest, or watch TV?’ She responded: “I don’t have time to watch TV. There is too much to do in the world to waste my time.’
Jarvis concludes with a smile: “I am continually stunned and inspired by her passion, energy level, spirit — and her ability to do it all with fun and ease.”.