INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — This July, three local teenagers decided to take time from their summer of hanging out at the beach to volunteer abroad.
Through Walking Tree Travel, a small organization that creates unique travel opportunities for students, Michelle Albers and Joanna Taranowski helped build a school cafeteria in Peru, while Julianna Gordon helped restore classrooms in an African village.
Walking Tree is humanitarian-based, putting students in small communities and villages where they help with much-needed labor projects.
“We’re going for something a little more in depth,” said Walking Tree Travel co-founder and director Paul Laurie. “Places off the beaten path that also provide that other perspective.”
The other perspective Laurie refers to could be the increased awareness and gratitude the three young ladies talk about feeling since their return to American soil.
“I hear my friends complaining about stuff, stupid stuff,” Gordon said. “I want to say, ‘Stop — you have no idea what these other people go through.’”
When essentials like running water and electricity become luxuries, ideas on what one truly need to survive are shattered.
Gordon recalls arriving at JFK airport in New York after the 14-hour flight from Senegal, wanting only pretzels and chocolate milk. The 17-year-old found overwhelming aisles with 20 varieties of the salty snack and five different options of chocolate milk.
“This is ridiculous,” Gordon remembered thinking. “It’s hard to see why people need all this when there is happiness in Africa.”
CREATING AN EXPERIENCE
The founders of Walking Tree also aim to mold global citizens, which Laurie defines as “someone who doesn’t take a story at face value, who thinks with international perspective, someone who is really open and willing to learn from other people and other cultures.”
An avid traveler himself, Laurie said he and two friends started Walking Tree Travel to help students “break free of those bubbles” people all so easily come to live inside.
“Our students will sign up individually and get a perspective away from family and friends back home,” he said. “They create their own experience.”
So while classmates may have been paddleboarding at Incline Beach, Albers and Taranowski spent long days stacking bricks, not always in clean clothing, in a small village outside of Lima, Peru.
They attempted to communicate with host families, both parties speaking broken Spanish, and ate whatever they were given, which always consisted, the girls said, of potatoes.
“I never want to see a potato again,” Taranowski said with a laugh.
HARD TO DESCRIBE
Now with their hair washed and their clothes cleaned, the teenage girls sit around the dining room table. Each is barefoot.
The stories Gordon tells of the heat in Senegal, the bruises Albers shows from laying bricks, and the experience Taranowski recalls of climbing Machu Picchu are all memories now.
“I couldn’t put it into words,” Michelle says. “It’s hard to tell people what I’ve done. I just tell people I went to Peru and leave it at that.”
The afternoon soccer games Taranowski and Albers played with the village children are much like the magic tricks Gordon taught her nine-year-old host brother in the hut at night.
“I can’t talk about it because I don’t get the reaction I want,” Gordon said.
Upon returning from her three week trip, Gordon deleted her Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“If I’ve changed in any way, it’s that I want to experience more,” she said. “Not sitting in front of the TV or on my phone on Instagram — I want to be out experiencing what the world has to offer.”
The girls did return, however, to the stress of high school schedules, sports, homework and, of course, college applications.
Traveling abroad during high school is seen as a resumé builder and can give students a competitive edge when applying for schools.
“It gives students the leg up that is essential in today’s world,” Laurie said.
However, while boosting the experience can be for a resumé, the trips mean much more than something the girls can ever put on paper.
“I didn’t go to Africa to write an essay about Africa,” Gordon said. “I went to help people and remember them and have them remember me.”
Taranowski and Albers are juniors in the IB Program at Wooster High School in Reno, while Gordon will graduate from Reno High School this spring.
The girls are unsure where they will go to college or even what they want to major in, but they all know their future will assuredly consist of travel.
“I just want to make money to travel, that’s how I’d like to spend my life,” Gordon said.
More information about the courses, trips, and internships offered by Walking Tree Travel can be found at www.walkingtree.org.
“ I went to (Africa to) help people and remember them and have them remember me.”