Mount Airy native Anna Leon, 20, spent her summer vacation from college filming a documentary about life in a school in Africa.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” she said. “If you wanted to take a bath you had to take a bucket shower, great fun. ... I just remember my first night taking a bath and wondering ‘What I have I just gotten myself into?’ [Then] I looked up at the sky — you can see the stars so clearly [there] — and it was absolutely breathtaking, and I think that was a turning point for me.”
Leon, a senior at Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky., followed up that experience on the Buvuma Island of Uganda by serving as a liaison officer at the summer Olympic Games in London.
Leon, who is majoring in journalism and communications, volunteered this summer with the World Gospel Mission as part of her university’s Initiative for Servant Leadership in International Development program.
It took an eight-hour plane trip and a two-hour ride in a leaky boat across Lake Victoria for Leon to get to the Kikongo Primary School when she left her hometown for Uganda in May. Leon said when she first arrived she wasn’t sure she would make it through her eight-week stay.
She worked at the Kinkongo school, which is run by the gospel mission, filming a short fundraising documentary.
Founded in 2004, the school was built to provide a quality education to children in the remote area. About 200 students are enrolled at the school, which runs from first through seventh grade.
The school is made up of two single-story buildings for classrooms, teachers’ quarters and dormitories for students who are orphans.
“My focus for this documentary is to put a face on the school. I’m really focusing on individual students who have names and have dreams of what they want to do,” Leon said, “I want [people to know] that just because they are living on an island that has no electricity or running water doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve their dreams.”
Although Leon connected with many of the people at the school, she said there’s one face in particular that she hopes people will pay attention to when watching her film. While taking pictures of a group of children playing soccer one day, she noticed a boy nearby watching her. The boy was Okech Benard, a sixth-grade student with dreams of becoming a doctor.
“A lot of the kids would watch me [take pictures] but he was watching very intently,” she said. “I asked if he wanted to try and this slow smile kind of came across his face.”
From then on, Leon said Okech would ask her something new about her digital camera each day.
“And he would say [things like] this time can you teach me how to take video on your camera not just photos,” she said. “It was a lot of fun to watch him. ... It was cool because it was like I was watching him seeing his world opening up a little a bit.”
Administrators at the school plan to use the film to attract donors for an upcoming project that would expand their building to include a secondary school. The documentary should be finished by Christmas, Leon said.
“Some of [the kids] come as far as 10 kilometers a day to get to the school, some of them come over from another island,” she said of students’ more than six-mile walk. “A lot of them finish and then have nowhere to go [to continue their education].”
It took another eight-hour flight for Leon to get to London on July 23. It was shock to transition from life in Africa to life in England, she said.
“My first night in London I was brushing my teeth with water from the tap. It was the first time I had done that in two months,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow I’m brushing my teeth with water from the tap because I can.’”
About 50 students from Asbury went to the Olympics as part of program in the university’s Communication Arts Department. Leon spent almost three weeks assisting at the games’ aquatics venue.
“I had to make sure that all the broadcasters had what they needed and make sure that all the broadcaster spaces were maintained,” she said.
Leon found out she was selected for the program in November after applying in February of 2011.
Having gold medalist swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps walk “6 inches past her” was a highlight of her time at the games, Leon said, but it wasn’t her favorite story of her time in London.
One day, while directing traffic through a door at the venue, South African swimmer Chad le Clos struck up a conversation with her.
“Most of the athletes would go straight through and not talk to anyone but he stopped and said, ‘Hey, how are you’ … so he’s my favorite,” she said. “It was a bit crazy.”
Clos won a gold medal in the men’s 200-meter butterfly and silver in the 100-meter butterfly during the games.
Leon, who was home-schooled until her graduation from high school in 2009, is currently back at Asbury for the fall semester with her father, Robert Leon, director the university’s Center for Cultural Engagement.
“We were very excited for Anna to have the opportunity,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”
Anna’s mother, Lori Leon, who lives in Mount Airy, said the experience not only helped to change Anna’s perspective of the world, but the whole family’s.
“It opened our eyes to Africa [when she went to Uganda], and while she was there, it was like our heart were there; it became real to us.”