Within moments of meeting Azalea Lehndorff, you can tell how the public health grad has managed to raise $800,000 and build 71 classrooms in Afghanistan over the last six years through her 100 Classrooms Project. Single-minded is an understatement when applied to Lehndorff, a project manager for international development organization A Better World, based in Red Deer, Alta. She speaks passionately about making education accessible to everyone and fully intends to meet her goal of 100 classrooms by 2018. She is also disarmingly candid about why she cares so much — she understands first-hand that education isn’t always a given. At 14, Lehndorff had to leave home and her family in order to finish school.
What was your childhood like? Life at home was tough. We were very poor. I grew up in Tennessee, but then we moved 26 times. We learned how to read and do basic math at home, but there wasn’t a strong belief in education. I remember reading the story of Abraham Lincoln, who grew up in a one-room cabin. He wanted to change his future, and what made the biggest difference for him was getting an education.
What was it like to be denied an education? Part of it was thinking about my future and asking, “Is this what it’s always going to be like?” When I was 14, I found a boarding school in Syracuse, N.Y., where we were living at the time. I wrote letters to 90 people in my parents’ address book asking them to send money to the school so my sister and I could attend. After the first semester, my parents made it clear they did not want us to continue, so we ended up running away from home. A teacher offered for us to stay with her, and I worked part time to help pay my way. The driving force was this far-off idea that someday I would go to medical school.
You graduated from high school and university, then took it upon yourself to give back. Why? I felt a deep sense of gratitude. What seemed impossible for me became possible simply because the opportunity existed — I could go to school and pursue my dreams. I read about the lack of access to education for children in Afghanistan. For a lot of them, they risked their lives to go to school. On one of my first visits there with A Better World, I toured schoolrooms that were riddled with bullet holes. I met one girl about the same age as me who had to study in secret. I could relate to that.
What has been your biggest revelation? It’s easy to forget that education is a privilege. When you see how some people live, day to day — they’re worried about putting food on the table. Education allows for self-actualization. It allows you to ask, “What contribution can I make to society and how can I give back?”
How did your U of A experience influence what you’re doing now? Studying public health gave me a new perspective and the skills to understand how poverty and education affect health at the population level. I also learned that as much as I want to help as many people as possible, I like helping people one-on-one, too. That’s why I’m in medicine now [at the University of Calgary]. I have yet to determine how I’ll blend those two desires in the future.
You are one of the most driven people I’ve ever met. What do you do for fun? I head to the mountains to hike. Oh, and I also ran a marathon in June! I’m not motivated to do something unless I set a goal. I can’t even go to the mall and enjoy a leisurely stroll without asking, “Why am I here? I need a reason!” It can be frustrating at times, but in the end it serves me well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.