From Rwanda to Atlanta, a Jewish Service Leader

Lily Brent

December 21, 2018

  • Jewish Community
  • Jewish Life and Values

ATLANTA — Lily Brent has some exciting months ahead of her. Although it has only been a short time since Repair the World Atlanta launched in September, Lily, the Atlanta Community's first Director, describes a long and detailed list of upcoming projects. Ones like packing seeds for Historic Westside Gardens, leading cooking classes with a PAWKids afterschool program and working with local partners to organize a city-wide Martin Luther King Jr. Day Shabbat with a dialogue on sports and social justice.

But Lily is no stranger to immersing herself in a new community to engage in service.

In 2009, Lily served as a Fellow for the JDC Entwine Service Corps and was placed in Rwanda's Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. The Village was originally founded in 2008 to provide holistic support to teenagers who lost their parents in the Rwandan genocide. The program continues to serve vulnerable youth now that the orphans of the genocide era are grown.

Lily supported the students of the Village by collaborating with a Rwandan house mother and mentoring a “family,” a group of 15 high school girls. Lily mentored them and joined them during their nightly “family” meetings. She also tutored many Village students in English, taught arts and crafts and ran the newspaper club with a Rwandan staff counterpart. 

Lily Brent with the House Mothers
Lily (third from the right) with the House Mothers at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village​ on International Women's Day 2010.


One of Lily’s favorite parts of her Fellowship was to accompany a group of students each week to do a local community service project outside of the Village. Some students tutored children at the local elementary school, while others volunteered at a clinic rolling bandages.

Lily joined a group that rebuilt homes for single women, the elderly and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. After the genocide, many Rwandans were left without family members to help with physical labor, so Lily and the students from the Youth Village took on some of these tasks. 

At first, the students doubted whether they had anything to offer when they themselves had been recipients of charity. But as the students became emotionally invested in the houses they were building and the people they were building them for, they realized they could make a difference. When the group could not afford to buy tin roofs to put on top of the mud houses, the students insisted on raising the funds themselves. They pooled each of their own allowances and refrained from eating meat meals at the Village so they could use the money for the tin roofs instead.

“I think [the experience] helped them see themselves as valuable people and agents of change,” says Lily.

This event solidified Lily's commitment to a life of service. “Being able to contribute whether materially, with our time, labor, or wisdom is empowering," Lily explains. "It recommits us to the idea that change is possible and that we can have a hand in it.  At different moments in our lives, we have different things to offer our communities, and we all need learn from each other.”

Following her Fellowship, Lily worked for the Millennium Challenge Corporation and CARE. Her work took her as far away as Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Niger and Bangladesh, and as close to home as Washington D.C., New York, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Virginia and now—Atlanta.

No matter where she is, Lily's Jewish values underpin her work. “To me, the Passover story was always about our own narrative of suffering, and came with the equal responsibility to try and alleviate suffering for people who are still enslaved in a variety of ways,” she says.

In her current role as the Director of Repair the World Atlanta, Lily is eager to continue pursuing service in a Jewish context. Though Atlanta has always had a robust historic Jewish community, the city is seeing a rise in the number of Jewish young adults putting down roots in the area. Lily hopes that Repair the World will be a place for this growing young Jewish community to volunteer and ask challenging questions about equity and voice—an essential part of Repair's mission to enrich volunteer projects with discussions of relevant Jewish texts and values. 

Repair the World volunteers at the Westside Growers Market
Repair the World Atlanta's first volunteer event packing seeds with Historic Westside Gardens at the Westside Growers Market.


Lily will also build partnerships with local community-based organizations. With no shortage of hardships facing Atlantans—lack of affordable housing, homelessness, food insecurity, among others—there is also no shortage of innovative, community-led solutions to support. 

Even as she embarks on new projects in Atlanta, Lily remains connected with communities she's worked with in the past. 10 years after completing her Fellowship in Rwanda, it is humbling and inspiring for Lily to see her students from the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village striding into young adulthood with purpose. Many have graduated college, some are pursuing higher education in fields like engineering and others work in fields such as banking and hospitality. 

One of Lily's students works for a non-profit supporting youth living on the street. Lily asked, "Is it a good organization?  Do you like working there?"  The student replied, "Yes, because it is Tikkun Olam." 

Life is not always easy for these former students, but Lily is proud to observe that this "family" from the Village still takes care of one another other, sharing resources and emotional support.

While Lily is miles from where her career began in Rwanda, she continues building communities, promoting service and forming deep, long-lasting relationships. The work she does everyday is informed by the skills she developed at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village: listening to members of the local community and showing up in solidarity to do the work. 

“Change is big and hard and takes a long time,” Lily says. “I think a lot of what we're about is just taking the first step.”

Want to help Lily bring impactful Jewish service to Atlanta? Follow Repair the World Atlanta on Facebook and Instagram! Additionally, Repair the World is accepting applications for their 2019-2020 cohort of Fellows to serve in 8 cities across the USincluding in Atlanta! Learn more and apply here