Lakei’s Story: Serving from Brownsville to Burkina Faso

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

Brownsville, Brooklyn is 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.


Not long ago, Lakei was dangerously close to becoming a drop-out statistic himself.

A year and a half ago, Lakei learned he would not be advancing from middle school to high school. Frustrated, he considered dropping out rather than repeating the eighth grade. He had the most important decision of his life to make, and the wrong choice could have had dire consequences for Lakei. For one thing, young people who drop out of school are nearly four times more likely to spend time in jail.


Prison is all too familiar to many of the men in Lakei’s family.

Lakei has a cousin and uncle doing time at Rikers Island, another uncle at Sing Sing, and his grandfather, “Pappy” Mason, is serving a life sentence in Colorado’s Supermax. In 1989, Mason was convicted of ordering the murder of a New York City police officer. Dropping out would have significantly increased Lakei’s likelihood of falling into the ‘pipeline to prison’ himself.


Instead of dropping out, Lakei found Back on Track, a buildOn partner school, and started on a more hopeful path.

Lakei didn’t want to participate in buildOn at first, but got involved at his school’s request. Before long he started to see that serving others made him feel good and he had a chance to create change in his community. “I didn’t know what volunteering was and thought it was crazy that people would work for free just to help others,” Lakei says. “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.”

Since joining buildOn, Lakei has volunteered spending time with seniors and serving fresh produce at the food co-op in his neighborhood, a ‘food desert’ with scarce grocery options for its economically disadvantaged residents.


buildOn also gave Lakei the opportunity of a lifetime – to build a school in Burkina Faso far from his Brooklyn home.

“Even when service is hard work sometimes, you see how you are making lives better,” Lakei says. “That’s why I raised my hand when (buildOn CEO) Jim (Ziolkowski) asked us if we wanted to go to Africa. Even though I was afraid to get on the plane and didn’t have any friends that were going, I had never been offered something so big in my life. I knew I had to go.”

Burkina Faso is ranked the fifth economically poorest country in the world by the UN and has the world’s lowest literacy rate with 78% of its population illiterate and only 58% of its children in primary school. It’s also the newest country where buildOn is constructing schools.


At the village welcome ceremony in Taga, Burkina Faso, Lakei spoke earnestly about the value of education.

Lakei told the villagers – most of whom could not sign their own names – why he felt so strongly about the importance of education. He learned that many of the children of Burkina Faso are denied a chance at education, just months after he was dangerously close to throwing away his own education.

Seeing the extreme poverty and lack of educational opportunities in Burkina Faso, Lakei reflected on the way kids 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.”


Building the new school in Burkina Faso was no vacation.

Lakei worked for 12 days laying bricks for the school’s foundation, tying rebar and digging a new latrine – all in the 100-degree heat. He had trouble sleeping and nearly gave up at one point. But he pushed on with grit and determination, becoming a leader on the school building team and bonding with his host family and other villagers.


On the worksite, Lakei met a young pregnant woman who taught him about the power of service and dreams.

Barkissou was wed into a plural marriage at 14 and had her first child at 15, a typical outcome in a country where most girls are denied education and have few options. Believing her lack of education had robbed her of a chance to dream for herself, Barkissou wanted more than anything to give her children the power to achieve their dreams. “With knowledge comes the power to dream… Through education my children can realize their dreams,” she told Lakei.

Barkissou’s words made a powerful impression on Lakei and he realized that serving others could make the world’s dreams achievable no matter how difficult. “Dreams are powerful. I’m building so that the children can have a dream and so Barkissou can have a dream,” he said. “If it’s not too late for Barkissou, it’s not too late for me. And, if it’s not too late for me, it’s not too late for the other kids in Brooklyn.”


Back in Brooklyn, Lakei’s commitment to service is stronger than ever and he’s hopeful for the future.

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

Lakei now believes community will be stronger if everyone motivates one another to do better and recognizes that each person has dreams that need nurturing. “Service can help others realize that everyone struggles in different ways, but that we all have hopes for ourselves, our families, our communities,” he says.

As for Lakei’s dream? He wants to finish high school, get his college degree and become a social worker, so he can continue to serve.