The Leah Aylward Memorial Endowment Fund
The Rotarian principle of “Service Above Self” was the polestar of Leah J Aylward’s life. It ran through her academic career and her personal life.
Her teachers noted her brilliant mind as early as elementary school. She enhanced her academic, musical, and athletic accomplishments through high school. As graduation approached, she applied to Harvard University on a whim. She was accepted, along with her twin sister Erin, and graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy.
Leah’s interest in Latin America, social justice, and conflict resolution developed at Harvard, along with a passion to travel to these countries to learn from their people before trying to offer solutions. In Leah’s mind, the local solutions she found to problems in a small Central American country might just as well prove to be superior and have applications elsewhere.
Rotary as an organization became part of her life about this time. Travel to South and Central American countries to volunteer and study required funding. Rotary International offered both funding and programs to the best applicants. Rotary International’s focus on projects that are practical and able to be locally sustained, such as digging water wells in Myanmar, would have appealed to her, as would student exchange programs or other activities that gave people the opportunity to experience normal life in a country other than their own.
Leah spent 2003 at EARTH University in Costa Rica as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, studying EARTH’s experiential learning model of education. The next year she was back at Harvard writing her undergraduate thesis, but it wasn’t long before she was out in the world again; in Colombia as a Fulbright scholar, Australia as a Rotary World Peace Fellow at the University of Queensland for her Master’s degree and PhD fieldwork, which took her to Guatemala and Colombia again. Before trauma and health crises drove her from the field and academia, she had written an 80,000-word draft of her PhD dissertation dealing with the relation between development and violence and its effect on certain South and Central American lives, at the bottom of the social structure, such as the Indigenous people in Guatemala. The topic is as relevant today as it was then, and she had hoped to complete her degree, but was unable to.
“Service Above Self” was just part of Leah’s personality whether she was involved in Rotary or not. Even her first-grade teacher remembered Leah not only as being extremely intelligent, but also as a defender of her bullied or struggling classmates. The concern for others continued for the rest of her life. She loved teaching and tutoring others, from high school to post graduate work. Some of the tutoring and editing was paid, but much was done just because someone needed help.
There is no happy ending to this story. Leah hoped to be a voice advocating for victims of trauma and sexual assault, but complex PTSD eventually took her life.