By Angela Brandt
Mercedes Lodge, a 13-year-old Havre Middle School student, has never been out of the country or traveled on a plane. But this summer, she will travel to Australia with eight other students from the Hi-Line. The trip will be the first journey out of North America for all nine.
Lodge first heard about the possibility when she received an invitation in the mail this fall. It said an unnamed teacher had nominated her to participate in the People to People Foundation Ambassador Program's 18-day Australian adventure. None of the other students were aware of the program before receiving their letters.
The Ambassador Program is by invitation only. The process of getting into the program includes nomination, application, interview and three references. Only students who have an understanding of the program and are mature enough for the trip are accepted, said Bonnie Jensen, a middle school social studies teacher who is the People to People Foundation delegation leader for the Great Falls area. About 30 students from the Great Falls area will be a part of the trip.
The cost of the trip is about $6,000 for each student, she said.
Havre High School freshman Sabrina Rhines, 14, has done bake sales at the Holiday Village Shopping Center and has been selling raffle tickets for a laptop computer that was donated by Bear Paw Technologies. Other participants have held bake sales, raffles and silent auctions.
Dan Marino, a 16-year-old junior at Havre High School, has been sending out letters to potential sponsors. For a $5 gift, donors will get a photograph of Marino in Australia and a postcard. A $100 donation gets the donor a seat at a formal dinner hosted by Dan after he returns from the adventure. Dan said he has about half of the $6,000 covered.
Fourteen-year-old Havre High School freshman Nichole Anderson said some of the teens will meet after the first of the year to plan group fundraisers like a car wash and a hamburger stand.
She is keeping a journal of all her activities leading up to the trip and will compile a scrapbook to give to her host family.
As part of the program, students must keep a pre-travel journal, do research presentations and keep a travel journal.
Anderson's mother, Crystal, said she knows of other nominees who had received letters but didn't respond because they thought it may be a scam. Crystal said she had heard good things about the program and that a friend of her sister's went to Russia with People to People and had a great experience.
“It's a lot of work and we're tired,” Crystal said. “It's been a process, a good one.”
Havre High School freshman Adrian Doll said he has always wanted to travel down under.
“There's something about Australia, the outback, so different yet the same,” Adrian said.
Hays-Lodge Pole High School freshman KayeLynne Essert, 14, has lived in Hays all her life and was convinced to go after her grandmother encouraged her to “get out of Hays for a couple of days.”
“It'll be a different experience from this tiny town,” KayeLynne said.
The main attractions the students said they are looking forward to seeing are the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. Another part of the trip Sabrina is looking forward to is the few days of staying with a host family.
“From the feedback I have gotten from students in the past, the home stay was their favorite part,” Jensen said. She will be traveling with the group along with a delegation manager from Australia.
The trip includes visits to the Sydney Aquarium, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and a wildlife park. The students will take a flight over Kakadu National Park, learn how to throw a boomerang and play the didgeridoo.
Sixteen-year-old Clarissa Skoyen, a Chinook High School junior, said she is looking forward to meeting new people and learning more about Australia's indigenous people. The students will visit with an aboriginal tribe during the trek.
Marty Moore, a 16-year-old Harlem High School student, said he is most excited about going to Australia, period.
The People to People Foundation was founded by President Eisenhower in 1956. Eisenhower called a special White House conference of American leaders, who joined him in creating People to People in the belief that ordinary citizens of different nations can resolve their differences if they can communicate directly. The People to People mission developed around personal exchanges and firsthand experiences with other cultures.
According to the program's Web site, Walt Disney created the “It's a Small World” attraction in 1964 after his participation in the People to People White House conference.