Making up for lost time

Houleye Sall's schedule is packed, as the Patterson senior from Africa savors every experience after spending 11 years in a refugee camp.


Houleye Sall has a reputation around Patterson High School for being a perpetually happy teenager.

Whether she's playing lacrosse, studying English or performing community service, the senior always has a smile on her face.

Behind that smile, however, lies a depth of appreciation for the lifestyle of an American teenager that few, if any, of her peers could ever comprehend.

"The kids don't know. They just see me as a happy person going down the halls. They don't see me inside. They don't see somebody who's gone through a hard time," said Sall, 18.

Few of her peers know that until six years ago, Sall lived in a refugee camp in the west African nation of Senegal. When she was five months old, her family fled their native Mauritania, chased from home, she said, by ethnic violence erupting between the black and Arab populations.

At the time, her father, Abou Sall, was a high-ranking government minister in Mauritania. When several other ministers were assassinated during an effort to make the country more Arabic, she said her family of six fled with a few other relatives to Senegal.

After 11 years in the camp, the extended family of 13 came to the United States, relocated by an international relief organization.

When she arrived in the U.S. in March 2000, Sall didn't speak a word of English, only French, Pulaar and Wolof. Now, she speaks English almost perfectly.

As she learned English in middle school, she was grateful to meet a boy from Gambia who spoke Wolof and helped interpret lessons for her.

As a freshman at Patterson she had become comfortable with the language. The next year, she began to devour every opportunity that came her way.

Since her sophomore year, she has played three sports and taken part in all but two after-school activities. This year, she was Homecoming Committee president and served as both secretary and treasurer of the Jonathan Ogden Community Service Club.

Well past her 130 hours of community service, Sall has volunteered with Special Olympics, coordinated the school's canned food and clothing drive and worked on the school improvement project over the summer. She also mentors children at Graceland Park Elementary School in O'Donnell Heights.

After taking modeling classes at the Barbizon school, Sall, 5 feet 7, likes being a runway model in local shows. On weekends, she works at a local flea market.

Her peers and her teachers are amazed at how she crams all that in, but Sall is baffled by questions about her jam-packed schedule.

"The reason I do it is I didn't have the opportunities in Africa to do all this and I like it, so why not do it?" she said.

Her father said she is extremely self-motivated.

"She wants to do something with her life and be happy. She has been through a lot and just wants to be happy. She's an active person and she loves doing everything. I really hope that her little sister looks up to her and follows after her," said Abou Sall, in an e-mail response interpreted by his daughter.

None of her extracurricular activities have taken away from her academic growth. Her grade point average has risen every semester to 2.8 - not bad for a girl who had only minimal schooling for the first 11 years of her life.

She's so driven to excel academically that she leaves home about 5:30 every morning and takes three buses to arrive at Patterson by 7 for study hall or tutoring. She usually sleeps only about five hours on school nights.

"She pushes herself to the limit and she won't stop at nothing," said her friend and volleyball teammate Crystal Hardy. "I'll be like, `If you'd been here longer, you would be one of the top students in every class.' "

Basketball coach Emily Butler said Sall brings a level of commitment that isn't prevalent at Patterson.

"She's not the most extremely gifted basketball player, but she is always the first one up and down the floor," said Butler, who nominated Sall for the McCormick Unsung Hero Award, which will be presented to one boy and one girl at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn Monday night.

Sall said she loves sports and wishes she had played as a freshman. She has tried just about everything - basketball for three years, volleyball and lacrosse the past two and cross country and track as a sophomore.

Even as the basketball team dwindled in numbers over the winter when some newcomers decided they didn't really want to play and others had conflicting commitments such as jobs, , there was never a question about one of their top rebounders sticking it out.

"Every year I've been playing, we have like 60 kids join and the next thing you know we end up with eight on each team," Sall said. "It was hard and we don't have a lot of subs, so we got tired, but I love it."

Butler said Sall is one of the most dedicated girls she has ever met.

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