Lakei Grant and the Power of Dreams


Whether they’re feeding the homeless in their neighborhoods or building schools in West Africa, urban youth involved in buildOn are working every day to transform their world through service. This holiday season, we’re celebrating a Season for Service by sharing inspiring stories of transformation and empowerment like Lakei’s.


Dreams are hard to come by in Lakei Grant’s neighborhood.

Lakei Grant is a great kid, but last year he had a tough time academically. At the end of the year, he got a letter in a brown envelope that explained he did not pass his math Regents test and that he was going to be held back in the eighth grade. Devastated he said, “all of my friends are going to high school. I can’t stay in this school. I can’t stay in the eighth grade anymore.”


Life isn’t easy for Lakei.

He lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with his mother and seven siblings in a small apartment. Four of his siblings were adopted after their biological parents abandoned them. His mother works extremely hard to take care of her family, often pulling late night and double shifts as a city bus driver to help put the two oldest children through college.

But despite the heroic efforts of his mother to build a better life for Lakei, he is still living in one of New York City’s most economically disadvantaged and violent communities. The neighborhood is home to the largest concentration of subsidized housing in the country and has the city’s highest homicide rate. Young men here are as likely to end up in prison as they are to go to college, and 70 percent of adults lack a high school diploma.

Lakei’s familiar with this “pipeline to prison.” He has multiple uncles and cousin’s in Sing Sing and is the grandson of Pappy Mason, one of the most notorious gangsters of the last half century. In 1987 Mason was brought to justice but then ordered a hit on NY cop, Eddie Byrne from inside Sing Sing. They then moved him to a super-max prison for the most dangerous criminals in America.

So, in this moment after opening his brown envelope, Lakei is much more likely to dropout of school and become part of this “pipeline to prison” than he is to stay in school. In this moment he is about to make the most important decision of his life.


But Lakei was lucky.

He found a school where there are other kids who haven’t yet made it to the ninth grade. A school where students have not given up. A school where buildOn has a presence.

When Lakei heard about buildOn, he thought it was “outrageous.”

“I didn’t know what volunteering was and thought it was crazy that people would work for free just to help others,” Lakei said. “But then I started going to service and found that I liked passing out food to people in need and visiting the old folks home.”

Before long he started to see that serving others made him feel good and he had a chance to create change in his community.


Then Lakei made a bold decision.

He decided to travel with 15 other buildOn students to Burkina Faso in West Africa to build a school.

On this trip Lakei would build the very first school buildOn had constructed in Burkina Faso – the economically poorest country in which buildOn has ever worked. It’s ranked as the fifth poorest country in the world by the UN and has the world’s lowest literacy rate.

It is also a country with a massive gender discrimination problem. It’s not uncommon for girls to be married off at the age of 14 and 15 years old. They become one of three or four wives and are refused education.

So, Lakei stepped up and traveled to a country, and a community, that was in desperate need of a school.


When Lakei arrived in the community of Taga he was met by a celebration unlike anything he had ever seen.

More than 500 community members, most of them women, danced and sang to welcome Lakei and his fellow buildOn members.

As the celebration settled down, Lakei decided to address the community. He told the villagers why he felt so strongly about the importance of education. And, that he was moved to learn how many children in Burkina Faso are denied a chance to go to school. It was a powerful statement from a student who just months ago was dangerously close to throwing away his own education.


Lakei joined the community in signing the buildOn covenant.

The covenant is a solemn promise to contribute all of the unskilled labor to build the school and, most importantly, to send their daughters to school in equal numbers with their sons.

It took four hours for the entire community to sign the covenant because very few people can even sign their name; all they can do is add their thumbprints. But, not a single person walked away. Both men and women were deeply committed to the project they were about to undertake.

Seeing this dedication to education had a profound impact on Lakei as he reflected on the way students in his Brooklyn neighborhood view education. “Kids from my neighborhood don’t make education a priority because they’re too busy thinking about other things like drugs, instead of school. I know people in New York who would die for things they don’t even have in Burkina Faso.”


On the worksite, for the first time in history, women were empowered to do the same work as men.

The women didn’t just carry water, but also put in the foundation for the school, dug the latrine and mixed the concrete. As Lakei worked side-by-side with these women he met a girl named Barkissou.

Barkissou was sifting the sand that was needed to mix the concrete. It was extremely hard work, especially because Barkissou was eight months pregnant. It was clear that a school construction site was not the best place for a pregnant woman, but Barkissou was determined.

She said, “I have children and this school is for them.”


Barkissou had been denied education her whole life.

She went on to say that she doesn’t even know exactly how old she is – she has papers at home with her birthdate, but she can’t read them. She said she thinks she was married at age 14 and had her first child at age 15. Now she must be 17 or 18 and about to have her third child.

Then Lakei asked her, “What are your dreams? What are your dreams for your children?”

She just looked down she didn’t say a word. When she finally looked up she said, “I don’t know how to dream. I’m illiterate. How can I dream without education?”

With that sentence Lakei came to understand that without education, there are no dreams. And without dreams, there is no hope.


So, Lakei got back to work.

He worked to ply rebar that would go into the pillars and the beams for the school. He dug the latrine. And, he passed cinder blocks over the foundation in the blistering African heat.

And Lakei, who had never done such difficult, manual labor, was doing pretty well. Until one day the heat, the blisters and the sore muscles got the better of him and he dissolved into an epic meltdown.


But, after three minutes of cursing and demanding to be sent home, Lakei cooled down.

He began to remember why he was in Burkina Faso in the first place. And then he spoke about his own dreams…

He said, “You know I’ve got dreams. I’m going go to high school. I’m going to graduate from high school. I am going to go to college and I am going to become a social worker because I want to help people. Dreams are powerful. I’m building this school not just so the children can have dreams, but so Barkissou can have a dream. If it is not too late for me, then it is not too late for Barkissou!”


On the last day in the village…

Lakei knew he had accomplished something real and powerful. That he had persevered through the challenges of the heat and the pain and had become a leader on the worksite.

It was hard for Lakei to leave Burkina Faso that day. But he left with a renewed commitment to himself, his education and to his community.

“If others had an experience like I did, they would realize what things are more important,” he said. “You can invite people in before they go and commit violence. Instead of that gang on the street, buildOn can be their family.”

“I know I can be a role model. buildOn taught me that we can make our communities stronger by motivating each other to do better. buildOn also helped me find my dream. One day I will become a social worker so I can continue to help others. Because of buildOn I know that if we all work together, things will be different.”


This holiday season, support buildOn’s Season for Service by investing in students like Lakei.