By JOANN JONES
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE
The group of 14 teens will experience life in Australia as part of a local delegation.
Chaney High School senior Chris Wysinger will be keeping a journal throughout the middle part of July.
Summer school? No way. Educational? You bet.
Wysinger is one of 14 area young people who will leave July 10 for a trip to Australia with the People to People Ambassador Program. They will fly from Cleveland to Los Angeles, where they will meet a group of 26 from Virginia who will continue with them to Australia.
“I received a letter in the mail about the program and said, ‘Why did they choose me?’” Wysinger said. “But I saw it as an opportunity to travel, so I went to a meeting and they gave me a lot of information.”
“They” are the delegation leaders, Gary and Sandie Reel of Austintown. Gary Reel, who taught history and economics at Fitch High School until he retired, has been with the ambassador program since 1994. His wife, a registered nurse, joined the program in 2002.
According to the Reels, the students are recommended by administrators, teachers or alumni from their schools.
Wysinger will turn in his journal to the Reels at the end of the trip, July 24.
“We just look it over and give it back,” Gary Reel said. “However, some schools give educational credit, and some just add it to the students’ transcripts. It gives an educational side to the trip. Otherwise, you’re just a tourist.”
Founded in 1956 in response to the Cold War by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the program focuses on the vision of global understanding, culture, and heritage. Each year since then students have traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, China or South Africa.
Because the trip is “not an inexpensive venture,” Gary Reel says the students have to raise the money on their own; there are no group fundraisers.
“I asked for donations from churches, the Civic League and the board of education,” Wysinger said. “We also held a spaghetti dinner.”
Wysinger said he is looking forward to swimming and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of northeastern Australia near Cairns, where the group’s plane will land July 12. The students will lose a day traveling to Australia but gain one coming back.
William Smythe, a senior at Canfield High School, said he is also interested in seeing the Great Barrier Reef. He said he hopes he gets to scuba dive.
“I’m a certified scuba diver,” Smythe said. “I did it two years ago in Mexico. Mr. Reel said it would probably be OK.”
As part of their preparation for the trip, each of the students had to do research on Australia. Smythe chose to research Australia’s economy.
“Most of their business is done on the East Coast,” he said. “And they have a lot of imports from the U.S. Their economy is in pretty good shape now.”
Maggie Kamenitsa, a 16-year-old junior from Canfield, said she had a “really good feeling” about the Australia trip after declining offers to go on previous trips. To help finance her trip, she wrote letters to area companies, telling them what People to People was all about and why she wanted to go.
“I got a really good response,” she said. “I raised most of my money through sponsors.”
Kamenitsa, whose brother Scott was also an ambassador for People to People several years ago, said she is looking forward to the home-stays — two nights with a volunteer Australian family — to see what everyday life is like and be able to experience Australian culture.
Home away from home
The Reels explained that the home-stays are planned well in advance.
“It’s usually a small-town feel,” Gary Reel said, “with families with kids the same age. The kids do whatever they want — go to the mountains, stay in a cabin. Nobody ever complains.” The Reels also call the host families during the two-day stays to make sure everyone is all right.
“Usually there are tears at the airport,” Gary Reel said of the friendships the students form while on the trip. “Some of our students are still in contact with their host families and other students on the trip years later.”
“It will be a good experience, and I’ll get to meet new people,” said Taylor Hartman, a junior at Ursuline High School. Hartman, who wants to be a marine biologist someday, said he, too, is looking forward to the Great Barrier Reef and its marine life.
“We can’t actually touch the reef because the oils on our skin will kill it,” he said. “I’m so disappointed — I can look but can’t touch.”
Hartman said the trip has been “just a big preparation” starting with fundraising early on. Yet, he said that didn’t really work for him.
“My family has been very supportive and active in this,” he said. “They told me to ‘go for it.’ My grandparents, aunt and uncle helped me out financially.”
Besides Cairns, the students will also visit Brisbane, Fraser Island, Sydney and Bellingen. Bellingen is where they will make their two-day home-stays in groups of two per family.
“This is a life-changing experience,” Gary Reel said. “We’ve had parents say, ‘Who did you bring back?’”
Wysinger said he hopes to change others’ lives by going on this trip.
“Hopefully, my going to Australia will convince others like me to go,” he said. “They’ll look at me and say, ‘he did this, and I can, too.’”