It was a hot, humid Tennessee morning when the two runaways boarded a packed Greyhound bus bound for New York State.
Azalea Lehndorff, then 14, and her 15-year-old sister, Sarah, had begun making plans to leave home the moment their parents picked them up from boarding school and set off for the backwoods of the Volunteer State.
It had taken the sisters months to persuade their parents to let them attend Union Springs Academy for a semester. They had gone so far as to steal their mother’s address book and write to 90 of her friends, explaining their goal of acquiring a high school education and asking them for the money to pay for it.
Lehndorff was determined to honour that commitment and graduate from high school at the academy – with or without her parents’ blessing.
“Even though we were sitting on the floor for the first section of the (bus) journey, I didn’t care,” recalls Lehndorff, now 23.
“We were moving. We were moving away.”
Lehndorff’s travels eventually brought her to Lacombe, where she graduated from Canadian University College.
For the past year, she has been an intern with A Better World, a Lacombe-based international development organization.
In 2009, Lehndorff launched the 100 Classrooms in Afghanistan project. Its goal is to raise $500,000 over three years.
Her commitment to improving girls’ education was one of the reasons she was named Red Deer’s Young Citizen of the Year for 2011.
Lehndorff’s steely determination and her uncanny knack for persuading people to support her goals were forged by the struggle to get out from beneath her parents’ thumb.
Hostile to education and living the life of vagabonds, Lehndorff’s parents had moved 26 times and lived in 11 states by the time their daughters were making plans to run off for good. Sometimes the family would pack up in the dead of night and drift away without telling anyone that they were leaving.
There was no guarantee the home awaiting them would have electricity or running water.
The girls wore head scarves and long-sleeved dresses that made them look Amish or Mennonite, although they were not. Radio and television were forbidden.
One saving grace was that their parents sold books.
That ad hoc library fuelled Lehndorff’s interest in medicine and reinforced the growing feeling that her life was far from normal.
But she would need to graduate from an accredited high school to have any hope of attending medical school. Neither home schooling nor the alternative school her parents proposed once they reached Tennessee qualified.
“The punishment for misconduct (at that school) was digging up a stump by hand with a shovel,” laughed Lehndorff. “It was a little extreme.”
When the family arrived in Tennessee, Lehndorff called around, scoping out the fastest way out of town. When her parents caught wind of what she was up to, her mother called the phone company and had the service disconnected.
Undeterred, Lehndorff made calls on the sly using the phone at a nearby nursing home.
“We were a little rebellious when we got there. We would lie out on the porch, suntan and listen to the radio,” said Lehndorff. “And that was all a no-no.
“But we were thinking all the time about how we were going to get away.”
By the end of the week, Lehndorff had persuaded a neighbour to drive the sisters to the bus station and pay for the tickets.
When they arrived back at the school, an English teacher allowed the girls to live in her basement.
Lehndorff is particularly proud of Sarah, who went on to become an airplane mechanic and recently enlisted in the U.S. military.
“People used to put us together Azalea-Sarah and Sarah-Azalea. They thought were kind of the same,” said Lehndorff.
“Our interests were different, but I think that only became clear after we weren’t attached at the hip.”
Lehndorff’s interest in medicine led her to enrol at Canadian University College. At one point she worked six jobs on campus to pay for tuition and make ends meet.
“Honestly, I had no social life the first couple years,” said Lehndorff. “People didn’t even know I was going to school.”
Lehndorff was inspired to educate girls in Afghanistan while reading Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea. Before she had finishing reading the best-seller, Lehndorff had decided to run across Canada to raise money for the cause.
“It was going to take me seven months, I was going to run 15 miles a day and take one day a week off,” said Lehndorff.
“I hadn’t come up with a name yet, but that’s what I was going to do.”
Lehndorff told only a few select people about her plans out of fear they would think she was crazy or, worse, try to squash her dream.
Eventually, she pitched the idea to Eric Rajah, co-founder of A Better World. The proposal put Rajah in an awkward position.
On one hand, Lehndorff was clearly inspired, so Rajah said he was careful not to discourage her.
On the other, many passionate, enthusiastic young people had approached him with project ideas since he began doing international development in the early ‘90s, but few of them had the commitment and determination to see the project through to the end.
A Better World was not in a position to take over a project of such a magnitude in such a challenging region if she bailed on it, he said.
Lehndorff never bailed, although her fundraising plans changed radically over the next year or so.
After meeting with Rajah, Lehndorff persuaded a dozen or so friends and fellow students at Canadian University College to help her organize the run across Canada, dubbed Freedom Run 5000.
It was based on a simple premise: 5,000 people donating $100 each to build 100 classrooms in Afghanistan.
“Nobody ever stopped and said, ‘This is unrealistic.’ They really could have,” said Lehndorff.
“That’s the thought that was running through my head, but I . . . didn’t want to make it look like I didn’t have confidence in what I was trying to propose.”
By January 2010, Lehndorff had scaled back her ambitions.
Rather than run across Canada, she proposed running from Calgary to Edmonton.
Two volunteers with A Better World, Cindy Wright and Julie Stegmaier, offered to help her organize it.
After meeting with an experienced long-distance runner about the project, Wright and Stegmaier realized there were sizeable roadblocks standing between Lehndorff and her dream.
Running from Calgary to Edmonton would require hundreds of volunteers, police escorts, medical personnel, support vehicles, time and money.
Lehndorff also needed permission from Transport Canada to run on Hwy 2, which had been denied, as well as approval from any community she planned to run through along the route, they learned. They invited Lehndorff to dinner to give her the bad news.
“Julie and I were just crushed and were not looking forward to meeting Azalea for dinner,” said Wright, who began volunteering with A Better World after she and her husband, Richard, made their first trip to Kenya with the group in 2004.
“Now we were going to be the dream squashers!
“However, once we got over our nervousness and talked frankly with Azalea about this run, we all realized that it was better to scale back a bit . . . .”
Stegmaier said Lehndorff was disappointed.
However, by the time the women left the restaurant that night, she had already come up with the idea of organizing shorter runs in Central Alberta communities.
“I was so impressed with her in that she did not get discouraged or want to give up,” said Stegmaier, donor relations co-ordinator with A Better World. “She just thought of a new idea and started to make it happen immediately.”
The first Freedom Run took place in Red Deer in June 2010.
It raised $5,000. A subsequent run in Lacombe raised $25,000. Future runs are planned in Lacombe and Aldergrove, B.C.
“It’s fallen into this model of a 2-km, 5-km and 10-km run because the one thing I’ve learned is that you really don’t need to be hardcore to get the group of people out that you want for this kind of cause . . . .,” said Lehndorff.
“The hardcore runners that want to run the marathon aren’t necessarily worried about the kids in Afghanistan. They’ve got this inward focus and they’ve got to do it.”
While a friend busied herself back home organizing the first Freedom Run, Lehndorff came face to face with the harsh realities of pursuing international development in Afghanistan in May 2010.
By the end of the trip, building 100 schools – a goal that once seemed insurmountable now hardly seemed worth the effort because the need was so great, she said.
That feeling of hopelessness became acute as the team returned from day trip to some villages near the Salang Pass in northern Afghanistan.
As the team’s vehicle wove its way through Kabul’s dry, dusty streets, it began to rain.
Lehndorff watched children play soccer and fly kites in a barren brown field next to the road before closing her eyes, desperate to conjure up a glimmer of hope that would motivate her to stick with her classroom project.
When she opened them again, there was a rainbow over Kabul.
Lehndorff said she didn’t know the answers to questions that had been nagging her since she touched down in Afghanistan, but she was determined to see her project through to the end.
“In the Bible, (a rainbow) is a symbol of a promise and hope,” she said. “And that’s what it meant to me.”
One year later, Lehndorff remains determined to finish the project, which has had its fair share of ups and downs.
The Mortenson scandal hit Lehndorff particularly hard because she had been so inspired by Three Cups of Tea. Learning Mortenson may have embellished or fabricated parts of the book and used charitable donations to support his lifestyle made her feel like “a deer in the headlights.”
In the months since the scandal broke, Lehndorff has re-evaluated Mortenson’s impact on her life.
“He’s not a villain. It’s just that his humanness caught up with him and thankfully, he was called to task for it,” she said. “I was really blessed to have the opportunity to go to Afghanistan, because I think that’s what gave me my own experience and the resolve (to continue).”
Lehndorff’s ability to rise above challenges has inspired other A Better World volunteers.
Wright said Lehndorff has taken the organization to a new level. Watching her brainstorm ideas with other young adults as part of A Better World’s youth program is a wonderful thing to see.
“She is very hard working and once she sets her mind to something, believe me, it will happen!” said Wright.
A decade after running away from home, Lehndorff said she is more appreciative of some of the values and principles that her parents taught her.
One advantage to growing up in Amish and Mennonite communities was that it prepared her to work in Afghanistan.
On the surface, the cultures are similar in that both are male-dominated societies in which women have a lot of children, which are free to quit school when reach a certain age, she said.
Lehndorff is also thankful her mother taught her to read and write, an opportunity that many children in Afghanistan don’t have.
She also learned creativity, ingenuity and how to make sense of situation that made no sense.
“Some of those things you only learn from these crazy experiences,” said Lehndorff.
“I can look back and say that was worthwhile and I learned a lot.”