This past March, a County College of Morris (CCM) professor traveled with three students to Peru on a goodwill tour that changed lives both for the travelers and those they visited.
"World travel is one of the greatest educators there is,” says William Solomons, assistant professor and assistant chair of criminal justice at CCM. “When you get out of your element and have to interact with locals, that’s when learning and appreciation of other cultures begins.” Accompanying him were students Julia Sloan, of Caldwell; Julia Craig, of Madison; and Alex Gasiewski, of Morris Plains.
The group started off in Lima, the capitol of Peru, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean; then journeyed to Machu Picchu, a deserted Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains; and finally visited Cusco, another city in the Peruvian Andes, which was once capital of the Incan empire. Along the way, the tourists performed volunteer work to help underprivileged teenagers, children suffering from serious illnesses and students at a rural grade school.
“In Lima, we took a group of underprivileged teenagers from Callao, a port city, to the beach for a day,” Solomons says. “We planned a nice picnic lunch and the students from CCM really hit it off with these kids. They enjoyed each other’s company so much that we all went out to dinner in Lima even though our outing was only supposed to be a lunch. Thanks to social media, many of the kids are still in touch.”
“I thought that talking to teenagers who lived in another country with a poorer economic background would be different,” says Gasiewski, “but the only difference was that they spoke a different language and lived in another part of the world. They go to school – some to college – and they all had iPhones and used social media. They also love American television and movies.”
The group also visited a Ronald McDonald House in Lima. Ronald McDonald House provides a temporary home away from home for families of seriously ill children who live far away from the medical facilities where their children are receiving treatment. A woman from Connecticut moved down to Lima to found the Ronald McDonald House there.
“We got there in the early afternoon and spent time helping them clean and organize their storage room,” Solomons says. Later that afternoon, when most children had finished their treatments, the students gave the patients toys, gifts and candy, then spent time with them in the playroom. “Then we hosted a pizza party for all the kids and their families,” Solomon says. “It was a giant hit. For most of these people who come from poor rural villages, it was their first taste of pizza. One woman said she had only seen pizza on television. We all had such a good time that we stayed into the early evening, well past when we were supposed to leave.” He added that most of the children they played with were not expected to survive their illnesses.
“Even though we didn’t understand each other and spoke different languages, it was cool playing with the children, watching them enjoying themselves and seeing them forget about their illnesses for a while,” Craig says.
When they were traveling from Machu Picchu to Cusco, the group stopped off at a rural K-6 school 12,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains to spend time with the young students there. The children greeted them with a traditional local dance.
“Most of these kids walked to school,” Solomons notes. “Some walked as far as one and a half hours each way. We brought American footballs and volleyballs. Then we spent the next couple of hours playing a game of soccer with the kids. Once school started, we visited their classrooms while in session to see what they were learning and gave them candy.”
“The sad thing is that people who travel to these countries do tourist activities and don’t interact with the people who live there,” Gasiewski says. “These trips allow us to interact with everyday people, learn about their problems and understand them better. People in general have a lot in common. Even when we went to the one primary school in a very poor area in the mountains near Cusco, the children we saw, despite being very poor and living in shacks, were just as happy if not happier than children their age that live in the U.S.”
Solomons says that his group didn’t have any Spanish speakers. “You communicate nonverbally and it works just fine. Communication is so much more than verbal.” He adds that it took only minutes to break the ice and begin interacting with the children.
“For many of my students, it was their first trip without their family,” Solomons says. “When you take a goodwill trip, people don’t wait on you hand and foot. You have to buy food and figure out the money. You learn how people live in other countries, appreciate other cultures and get exposure to a part of the world that you would normally never see. When you’re immersed in another culture that’s so strikingly different than yours, you develop an appreciation of being a citizen of the world.”
What he finds most gratifying about hosting goodwill trips to other countries is watching students timidly begin to break the ice with people from other cultures. “In every situation there’s hesitation – a fear to interact,” he says. “Then there’s a moment where you recognize that they’ve really stepped across the line, are being themselves and can interact with those people. The kids learn that we are more connected in this world than we think. Once you make the connection, you don’t want to leave.”
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Photo_1: A small group from County College of Morris traveled to Peru on a goodwill trip this March. In this photo, members of the group eat with children during a pizza party at a Ronald McDonald House in Lima. From bottom right, Atticus Solomons, son of Professor William Solomons, who led the trip; students Julia Sloan, of Caldwell; Alex Gasiewski, of Morris Plains, and Julia Craig, of Madison. This was the first time many of the Peruvian children ate pizza.
Photo_2: County College of Morris students Alex Gasiewski, of Morris Plains (red shirt); Julia Craig, of Madison (white headband), and Julia Sloan, of Caldwell (blue shirt,) play with children at a public school outside of Cusco.