Outside the Boundaries:
Georgetown's Miles Kass Lends a Hand in Africa

By Mike "Mex" Carey

Miles Kass remembers the cheers. He remembers the adulation. He remembers people reaching out to shake his hand and thank him.

Kass, a junior goalkeeper for the Georgetown men's lacrosse team, didn't experience these feelings after the Hoyas won the 2006 ECAC Championship. And it wasn't after the Blue and Gray toppled Navy in the NCAA Tournament.

The greetings that Kass remembers came just a few days after the 2006 season ended for Georgetown in May. He was with his mother, Barclay, and the pair had just made the turn onto a dirt road to the Laban Village, in West Arica.

"It's almost as if you feel you don't deserve such a reception," Kass said. "I had respect for the job I was about to do, but at the same time, it was so humbling that it's almost beyond words."

The job he, and his mother, were about to do was to aid in the construction of a school for the Laban Village.

The mother and son traveled to West Africa as part of the Building with Books organization based out of Stamford, Connecticut. Building with Books, which has been in existence for 15 years, aims to enhance education for people in developing countries while empowering the youth in the United States to make a positive difference in their communities.

The school built during their stay was a three-room facility (built of 4,000 handmade cement blocks) that will house first- to sixth-graders and provide adult education courses to other children and adults. One of the stipulations of Building with Books for the schools is that girls are educated in equal numbers to boys.

Kass' parents, Dennis and Barclay, are on the board of directors for Building with Books and Miles spent summers working with the organization.

Through his summers at Building with Books, which included breaking down video tape of previous construction of schools in other developing countries, Kass developed a knowledge of what he would encounter.

What he did not expect was the reception that he and his mother would receive this day in June.

"You're bringing these people so much more than temporary glory or happiness," Kass said. "You're bringing them the ability to have a school, to work toward a meaningful education. That is so much more inherently good than any sort of cheering or anything. On top of that, I felt like they weren't so much cheering for me as they were the idea of a new start for themselves and the generations to come. It was about the future."

So just a few days after the conclusion of the 2006 Hoya men's lacrosse season, Miles began his trek with his mother. They flew from New York to Paris and then to Bomako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. Once in Bomako, Miles, his mother and a pair of interpreters - some villagers speak French, as Mali was once a French colony, but the main language spoken is an African dialect, Bamoro - had a trek of 100 to 120 kilometers (approximately 80 miles) to the Laban Village. The trip, because of the infrastructure in the country, took four-plus hours.

Building with Books will have trucks come and deliver all of the raw supplies, as well as the skilled labor to build the school and all of the tools. The construction of the school takes approximately 70 days. While Miles and his mother were the only visitors at this village, typically Building with Books sends 14 people, bringing kids from the suburbs and inner-city.

"It was a life-altering experience," Kass said. "I had worked in the offices a lot, so it wasn't a 100 percent surprise. I had seen how they reacted since I happened to watch a lot of the tapes. You can know, and you can be told what it will be like, but until you really see it, it brings it to a completely new level."

The day of their arrival was spent in a celebratory mode. Miles and his mother were given front row seats for a ceremony and they were welcomed by the village chief, who is 83 years old, and then the assistant mayor of Bamako, followed by the master hunter and the male village elders.

The celebration was not so much because of Miles and his mother, but because of the long-awaited construction of the school. Kass and his mother were provided with a place to stay during their visit, sharing a three-room mud hut with a mother, father and their four children.

When not communicating through their interpreters, they were able to relate to the villagers through hand signals or simple facial gestures.

"I wasn't nervous, I was almost anxious to help them complete the school," Kass said. "I was never able to fully communicate with them, but hand gesture and facial expressions were enough to say thank you, hello and how are you?"

Despite what many would think, there was no sense of trepidation on the part of Miles and his mother. They were being taken out of their comfort zone, but it was an experience that he relished.

"I didn't feel like there was any reason to be nervous," Miles said. "Some of the things that people tend to get nervous about when traveling to foreign areas - safety, bathrooms, food - I knew weren't a concern."

The trip, however, was not a vacation. The purpose was to help in the construction of the school, so while there were opportunities to see the village and experience the lifestyle, the fact that he and his mother were there just under two weeks forced him to focus on the task at hand.

"I never felt like I was there to sight-see," Kass explained. "I felt like I was there for a purpose. No emotions came out prior to being there. I wanted to learn from the villagers and form some sort of relationship."

Each morning, Miles and his mother would awake not to an alarm clock, but to a donkey's naying or a rooster crowing. The early hours were spent laying the foundation for the school, while the afternoon was spent visiting in the village.

Rather than sleeping in the hut, Miles chose to sleep outside because of how hot it was inside. By inserting himself into the village, Kass was able to learn about their lives, but also about himself.

"The close-knit relationships that they have in their families is something I don't see even in America," Kass said. "The afternoons were a cultural experience. One of the things to learn from them was how close they are. They have very, very little and they live on less than $1 a day in some cases, but there is no crime to speak of because of the relationships formed in the villages."

While Miles and his mother were there for just under two weeks, the experience was something that he will never forget.

"It was definitely hard to leave," he said. "You want to see the end of the job, but the relationships that are formed, even despite the language barrier, were unbelievable. The likelihood of me ever going back there is very slim and it's tough to think about that.

"It's good to step outside of your boundaries. Hopefully, you'll be uncomfortable so that you can grow from that experience. You should get outside of your boundaries so you can see how others live and learn from them."

Donate to Building with Books

Mex Carey is the Georgetown University Sports Information Director

February 7, 2007

Photos courtesy Georgetown University and the Kass family


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