Leaders From the Field: Student Inspired by Mali to Rebuild Detroit

By Abby Hurst, Vice President of U.S. Programs

If you were to call 10th grader Alex Costner’s cellphone right now, you’d likely hear the following voicemail message: “Hi, this is Alex. I can’t get your call right now, I’m probably doing community service…”

This might not immediately seem noteworthy. But to those that know her, Alex’s bright smile, optimism, and passion for service are truly miracles. Living in Detroit, Michigan, Alex is surrounded by decay, apathy, and violence. “In Detroit, people don’t act like people,” she’s commented. “People don’t speak to each other.” And yet, Alex has found a way to peer past the challenges she faces on a daily basis to recognize the opportunity for rebirth residing in her community.

[pullquote]“I try to surround myself with positive people who like to do community service and want to make change in life like I do.”[/pullquote]

I first met Alex in September of 2010, where she was one of the youngest students to participate in buildOn’s “In Depth: Detroit” event. Alex had been involved in buildOn’s afterschool youth service program since her freshman year, and I admired the manner in which she’d pushed herself to rise above the influence of her neighborhood. She attends Osborne High School, which has garnered a problematic reputation even by Detroit’s infamously lower than average standards. Michigan’s Department of Education awarded a composite grade of “D-Alert” in 2008, and Alex reports that “the school is on TV almost daily for shoot-outs and gang violence.” But, she adds, “I try to surround myself with positive people who like to do community service and want to make change in life like I do.”

Along with her buildOn friends and program leaders, I encouraged Alex to go on Trek in the upcoming year and participate in the building of a school in Mali. The people of Mali are a continuing inspiration for me and I knew the experience would be powerful for Alex. In Mali individuals survive great hardship with laughter, love, and dignity that provide a communal strength from which we could all benefit. I was thrilled that Alex viewed the Trek as an opportunity to push her boundaries and challenge herself to grow. “I thought it would be great for me to go out of my comfort zone,” she says. “Before buildOn I didn’t even know people were living like this in other parts of the world.”

The Trek Coordinator, Brooke Barnum, recalls that after Alex arrived in Mali it took time for her to come out of her shell. “At the beginning she didn’t really like to leave her room when she was at home. But after a few days, she started teaching her host brothers and sisters English, playing games and making the family laugh. She always asked great questions and did her best to learn about her surroundings with care and pride.”

Since returning from the Mali Trek, Alex has been dedicated to applying that care and pride to her Detroit surroundings, and to exploring what she learned from her host family. “They don’t have TV [in Mali]. They enjoy their company and laugh together. [And] they respect the elders so wonderfully. Here we disrespect our parents in lots of different types of ways.” She further states: “I want to push myself even more outside of my comfort zone because of this experience. For example, I am not a person to do physical activity. But I am going to try to be more active.”

[pullquote]”I want to push myself even more outside of my comfort zone because of this experience.”[/pullquote]

Alex’s growth is emblematic of the success of buildOn’s afterschool program. By providing opportunities for personal development, we foster our students’ ability to uncover seeds of change that enable social transformation. While pushing herself to go on Trek, Alex found the courage she needed to continue rebuilding Detroit despite its many challenges, and she’s now returned to the rhythms of weekly community service with renewed vigor.

But don’t take my word for it. The pride in her voicemail message really says it all.