June 5, 2012
Marathon globe trotters
Siblings visit dozens of countries through Seattle nonprofit
Ellena Holl of Marathon has been escorted by Brazilian military out of a violent city, been overfed by Chinese hosts and taken part in a friendship ceremony with Fiji villagers.
This summer’s trip to India should bring even more experiences for the 17-year-old Marathon High School junior, who is raising about $7,000 for a two-week journey.
The trip will be her fourth through People To People Ambassador Programs, a Seattle-based nonprofit that sends American youths in grades five through 12 across the world on educational missions.
The youths sample other cultures, do community service and gain a sense of their place in the world. They travel in groups of 40 to 50, escorted by at least four adults, who are teachers, and a manager from the host nation.
Holl visited Australia, New Zealand and Fiji in 2009 with her brother Evan, now 18. She followed that with trips to China in 2010 and Brazil in 2011.
All four Holl children have traveled through People To People.
Jacob, now 24, did six trips abroad covering 15 nations, starting at age 11, and three trips within the United States. Karolina, 22, visited 12 nations during five trips from 2002 until 2007. The two, who were together for some trips, spent much of their time in Europe but also trekked through Australia on one trip in 2002.
“Even if you just go on one trip, it will show you something you wouldn’t see,” said Evan Holl, a Marathon High School senior. “You aren’t with your parents. It’s almost like a clean slate, seeing everything.”
Karolina, Evan and Ellena Holl were on hand Saturday as a 1962 Volkswagen bus carrying People To People staff members Taylor Zajicek and Dan Seibert came to Cortland during a 5,000-mile trip to celebrate 50 years of travel by the organization.
Zajicek and Seibert are in the midst of driving through 20 states to visit alumni of the People To People travel program.
They stayed with the Holls Friday night, then stopped in Cortland, where Evan and Ellena Holl were refereeing soccer games in a youth tournament for boys and girls ages 12 to 18.
Ellena Holl planned to add her refereeing money to what she has been saving from baby-sitting, dog-sitting, working as a cashier at Greek Peak Mountain Resort and working at Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill.
She said that is one of the lessons a young person learns from People To People: to save money.
Beyond that, the Holls said they gain so much from leaving their comfort zone in Cortland County and finding out about the world, starting with how people in other nations view Americans.
“You learn to respect other cultures,” Evan said. “We had to be aware that there’s a stereotype for American tourists, that we are loud and obnoxious, that we’ll do what we want when we want.”
He said his group of 40, ranging in age from 12 to 16, found skepticism when it had lunch at a restaurant in Australia.
“You could tell the waiters weren’t happy to see us,” he said. “But by the time we were done, the manager said we were one of the best groups they’d had.”
On the 2009 journey, Ellena and Evan rode up a river in Fiji to a village where they dressed in saris and drank water tinged with a native plant, during a ceremony for uniting two tribes.
They then swam in a crystal-clear lagoon beneath a waterfall.
They laughed as they recalled the Fijian village ceremony, as the water mixed with the native plant tasted awful and left their lips sticky, making it hard to talk.
The youths stay with host families for one or two nights on each trip. Ellena said her 2010 trip to China included staying with a family, who kept offering her food out of hospitality — while she struggled to convey that she did not want more.
The youth trips are usually just educational, but People To People does offer sports trips. Ellena took part in such a trip, as a soccer player, to Brazil last year.
She said one service project took her group into an area that was considered very dangerous after nightfall; the group was escorted out by military.
Karolina Holl said the travelers wear People To People polo shirts, but stopped for several years after 9/11, wearing plain clothes so they would not stick out as Americans.
The family’s involvement with People To People started when their parents, Ethanie and Richard, learned about the organization and brought their four children to an informational meeting in Binghamton. The Holl children have since traveled with Binghamton groups but also with groups of People To People alumni.
“Jake got into a Binghamton delegation and went (to Europe in 2000), and since then it’s been six continents and 40 countries,” Evan said.
His mother said she now tracks the trips, with other parents, through email and Facebook. But she still worries.
“Jacob was 11 and he went off to Europe,” Ethanie Holl said. “That plane pulls out with your baby on it. You know they’re prepared but there are a lot of dangers out there. The worst time for me is the hour before their plane touches down, coming back.”
But she said she has faith in People To People’s ability to plan and manage a trip, and in what her children have gained from their travels.
“I come back to school in the fall and kids ask what I did,” Ellena said. “I say, I climbed the Great Wall of China. They don’t believe it.”
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