Amateur rider Alexandra Lieberman, 18, took a break from the show ring to spend two weeks of her 2013 summer vacation in an unusual locale for the average teenager—Rwanda.
Lieberman, who shows in the adult amateur jumper division, traveled to the remote African nation as part of a service project supported by her school in Chicago. The horse show community is often dominated by the wealthy, and Lieberman is the first to acknowledge how lucky she is to make an impact. A desire to help those less fortunate, especially young children, fueled her passion for service work.
“I’ve always loved working with kids and I honestly believe that I get as much out of it as they do. I’ve learned that community service is as good for you as it is for those you are trying to help,” Lieberman described.
Lieberman’s passion for helping others began when she joined the Just World International Ambassador Program in early 2012. The program strives to create awareness and fundraise for its programs benefitting children in third-world countries. After hearing from fellow riders how much they enjoyed being JWI ambassadors, Lieberman decided to get involved.
“I was interested in international affairs before my work with JWI, but now it’s more clearly defined,” Lieberman explained. “It was through my work with Just World that I developed an interest in education and healthcare, two of the most important aspects of a child’s development.”
It wasn’t long before Lieberman began seeking out service opportunities outside of her responsibilities as an ambassador. The Latin School of Chicago, where Lieberman is currently a senior, has partnered with the non-profit WE-ACTx for the past five years.
WE-ACTx provides healthcare to Rwandan women and children diagnosed with HIV, maintaining clinics in rural and urban areas. The horrors of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide created an epidemic of HIV in women, who often passed on the disease to their children during pregnancy.
Part of each clinic is a camp that provides a safe haven for children infected with HIV to escape the social stigma of the disease. Children receive warm meals and spend the day outside doing fun, educational activities.
The Latin School of Chicago funds the camp and also sends a team of student volunteers to work as counselors alongside mentors, who were once campers themselves. Lieberman jumped at the opportunity to become a counselor and in August was on her way to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Like Nothing Else She's Experienced
Lieberman spent two weeks in Kigali visiting the genocide memorials and learning more about the country. She and her fellow counselors were introduced to peer parents, who act as mentors to the children at the camp, and clinic workers before diving head-first into their service projects in the rural village of Nyacyonga.
“There was an incredible jewelry cooperative in the village run entirely by women who were genocide survivors. They had finally made enough money to buy land to build their own store. The first step was to clear the land for the new building, so that’s where we helped,” Lieberman explained.
Lieberman worked alongside the rest of the village, using machetes and hoes, to clear enough terrain for the women to start building. Though manual labor is outside her usual routine, Lieberman was moved by the remarkable support from the community. “It was incredible how the entire community—even the mayor—dropped everything to come help these women clear their land,” Lieberman recounted.
The highlight of the trip for Lieberman came during the second week of their stay, which was spent entirely working in the camp.
“The kids were so energetic and happy all the time. They were affectionate and always wanted to spend time with us. I got more hugs that week from those 45 kids than I bet I’ve ever gotten in the United States. The kids were so grateful for every little thing we did, even if it was just filling up their canteens,” Lieberman described.
“It was such a culture shock for me, seeing how affectionate the kids could be despite all the hardships they’ve faced in their short lives. Most of them are orphans. It’s hard to believe that these kids have been through so much already—much more than most people could ever imagine—because they never show it.
“Despite the work I had done with Just World and how much my perspective had already changed, nothing compares to actually working with the kids. It’s so important to raise money and spread awareness but I don’t think you can ever really understand the true devastation until you experience it in person,” she continued.
Continuing The Work
Lieberman’s trip to Rwanda only intensified her desire to participate in more non-profit work, and she already plans to return to Rwanda this summer to volunteer for a longer period. As a high school senior, her college search is in full swing and she is targeting schools with strong international relations programs.
Lieberman manages to not only balance applying for college and being a successful rider but also eagerly seeks out further philanthropic opportunities. In addition to her work on Just World’s latest campaign, she plans to launch an initiative at her own school.
“I am planning to co-create and head an initiative at school that will teach students about how to create lasting partnerships with organizations such as WE-ACTx,” Lieberman described.
Lieberman’s intense drive to share her passion and experiences with others in a position to help is fueled by her desire to do right by the children she has encountered in her journeys.
“My work in international relations makes me want to be a better person. I want to feel like I deserve the love and affection the kids [in Rwanda] dole out so unconditionally. I want to learn how to look at life more like they do, putting the bad things behind me and moving forward with a positive outlook on life,” Lieberman emphasized.
“It’s so important for young people, and riders in particular, to get involved with philanthropic work because, at least in my experience, I’ve been able to help less fortunate kids in ways I never imagined possible. Living in the United States, we don’t realize how lucky and fortunate we are. But through non-profit work, I think it really helps give people perspective about how much they actually have and how much help others need,” Lieberman explained.
At the 2014 JustWorld International Awards Gala in January, Lieberman was awarded with the JWI Leg Up Award for her fundraising efforts as a part of Team Honduras, which amassed more than $27,000 for the children of Honduras.
Lieberman strongly believes that equestrians in particular are well positioned to make an impact on the lives of those less fortunate.
“The riding world is such an expansive, fortunate, and global network. There are so many opportunities for us to make a difference,” described Lieberman. “With such an incredible set of connections in front of them, I believe riders can make a difference and have a responsibility to get involved.”
Want to know more about Just World International? Read the story the Chronicle Connection did on the organization: "Blue Coats For A Better World."