Ashley Millhouse came to La Reina High School as a shy seventh grader who did not realize that the word “God” was supposed to be capitalized. She left six years later in 2008, as a passionate Christian determined to change the world.
And she has already made quite an impact --- here and overseas, which has earned her recognition as La Reina High School’s Distinguished Alumna for 2013-14. The Award is given annually to a graduate who “uses her God-given talents to better her community.”
That impact was felt first at La Reina. When an injury prevented her from running cross country her senior year, Coach Robert Lopez kept her as the captain of the team. She encouraged the runners, gave them inspirational sayings, made them treats, and went to all the meets. "She has always put others above herself,” says Coach Lopez. “She always works for the greater cause.”
As a freshman at Wake Forest University, she joined the crew team; as a sophomore, she was elected captain. But Ashley found the spiritual aspect of college life was still missing, whereas at La Reina she had embraced the religion classes and the service opportunities. Longing for that connection to God, Ashley joined InterVarsity, a faith community at Wake Forest.
“I found like-minded people who wanted to give back to the community. With crew and my interfaith community, I had found a place, a home at Wake Forest.”
Seeking more opportunities to make a difference, Ashley applied to Volunteer Service Corps in 2010, and that summer was one of ten students (out of 200 applicants) chosen to go to Bongimfundo Primary School in Zinkwazi, South Africa. She fell in love with Africa.
In the fall of 2010, she went to Ghana as an exchange student. In addition to taking classes, she volunteered at BASIC International, where child day laborers are fed and tutored. She also wrote a grant proposal to stage an all-female concert (Girls Speak Out) and raised $10,000 for its all girls’ boardinghouse.
On her visits home to La Reina, Ashley spoke to classes, asking students to write letters of encouragement to her students at Bongimfundo Primary School. She was the inspiration behind the school’s 2013 summer service learning project to Guatemala; the 2014 destination is Costa Rica.
Receiving her B.A. in History in 2012 and awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, Ashley then began her most important work. From January to October 2013, she worked at Walmer High School in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, operating the library and teaching English to 55 students in classrooms without windows, electricity, substitute teachers (and high absenteeism).
Undeterred, and inspired by those she taught and worked with, Ashley made a documentary, “Words of Walmer,” highlighting stories of the people.
“So many people did not believe in themselves,” she notes. “They were damaged by apartheid. They lived next to a wealthy white community, but not many white people crossed the railroad tracks into Walmer. I wanted to make this documentary to let them know that they mattered and that God and other people cared about them.”
In interviewing people, she asked them: “What do you like about your township? What advice do you have for the younger generation?”
“Every day,” she says, “I asked them questions that no white person had ever asked them. They were shocked that a white woman showed that kind of interest in them.”
The result was the documentary (which follows the lives of six people) and the Words of Walmer website (http://wordsofwalmer.wordpress.com<http://wordsofwalmer.wordpress.com/). The community loved the documentary --- but it was Ashley who felt the most reassured.
“I wanted to prove to the community that circumstances don’t have to define your future,” she says. “I wanted the stories to humanize the community members, to give them a measure of self-worth that was lost during apartheid.”
Having been home now for a few months, Ashley is proud of what she accomplished in Africa, but stepping back has not been easy.
“Even today,” she says quietly, “students text me that they are hungry, that a family member has died, that they have hospital bills. The hardest part of my experience in Africa is having to accept what I can and cannot do. I struggle with this.”
Yet there is no denying that what Ashley Millhouse has done in her 24 years has been life altering for her and for those she has touched. “She is a unique individual,” says Coach Lopez, “and very deserving of the Distinguished Alumna Award.”