From Trinidad and Tobago to Camden
Camden — A group of 13 youth ambassadors and two mentors visited Midcoast Maine for 18 days during the month of September. The visit was facilitated by Partners of the Americas through a grant from the state department.
Alison McKellar is a member of the Partners of the Americas Inter-American Board of Directors and a volunteer host community coordinator. McKellar acted as the liaison in the Midcoast, setting up activities and working to coordinate 10 volunteer host families to house the students during their visit.
McKellar said students in the youth ambassador program are selected based on an "outstanding record of community service" and superior academics. Partners of the Americas — the largest volunteer organization in the western hemisphere according to McKellar — has 104 chapters including one in Trinidad and Tobago.
Partners of the Americas was founded in 1964, inspired by then-president John F. Kennedy under the Alliance for Progress. Partners strives to "connect people and organizations across borders to serve and to change lives through lasting partnerships" according to the mission statement on their website.
McKellar has participated in multiple exchange programs, traveling with groups to various parts of Latin America, but this is the first time she has ever put together a youth ambassador visit.
"I have always wanted to be able to share this area with people," she explained. "Pretty much everyone here believes it's important to volunteer, until you go other places you don't realize that not everyone thinks like that."
The youth ambassadors participated in a variety of activities including visiting Sen. Susan Collins' office, visiting Erickson Fields Preserve in Rockport, the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, a food pantry, attending rehearsals for West Side Story at Camden Hills Regional High School and giving cultural presentations to American students. Additionally, they spent a full school week attending classes at Camden Hills Regional High School, an experience that McKellar said was overwhelmingly positive.
"Camden Hills was amazing," she noted. She explained that the administration arranged for the students to meet with a different extracurricular group each day after school — the Windplanners, National Honor Society, PEERS and PALS among them — in order to get a flavor of high school life in small town America. She said the youth ambassadors also spent a morning at Midcoast School of Technology and spent part of a day giving cultural presentations to students at Camden-Rockport Middle School.
Along with students from area high schools including Belfast, Medomak Valley, Oceanside, Camden Hills and Islesboro, the youth ambassadors attended an ethical fitness workshop at the Samoset Resort. The workshop was funded by Partners through the Institute for Global Ethics. She said Camden Hills took care of inviting all of the other participating schools. The Samoset donated the space.
McKellar said she has previously assisted with student exchange programs through Partners of the Americas when she lived in Florida where she attended Stetson University. She was astounded at how receptive Camden Hills was when she presented the idea of the students from Trinidad and Tobago attending school during a portion of their visit.
Camden Hills Regional High School Principal Dr. Nick Ithomitis said school administration had simple reasons for working to accommodate such programs.
"We do it because we believe in it," he said. "Part of our mission is to prepare people for living in a global society."
Ithomitis said Camden Hills works to foster diverse opportunities for students to interact with their international peers while in high school, both in Maine and abroad. A study-abroad in Vietnam program has been popular with students and in November Camden Hills will host 40 Japanese students for a day of classes. Ithomitis said discussion of facilitating an exchange program with Germany will go before the school board in October. Additionally Camden Hills participates in the F1 Foreign Exchange Program that seeks to bring foreign students to Camden.
The youth ambassadors seemed to enjoy their experience, McKellar said.
"There was no mention of homesickness, they were all really excited to be here," she said. "We had really amazing host families."
Ithomitis said he and assistant principals Graham Bode and Piet Lammert were enthusiastic about hosting the youth ambassadors as soon as McKellar approached them. Ithomitis said it was around the 2012-2013 school year when McKellar first met with administrators about the project.
"We've hosted kids from all over," he said. "This was a group we had never had an interaction with."
Ithomitis said on Thursday, Sept. 20, — towards the end of the youth ambassador's time at Camden Hills — they gave presentations to staff in Strom Auditorium. Although school was still in session for the day, a lively closure to those presentations involved the youth ambassadors leading a conga line of students and staff — including Ithomitis — through the academic corridors of the high school as students poured out of classrooms to join the spirited festivities.
"It engaged more kids that way," Ithomitis explained.
A pep rally the following day received a similarly enthusiastic response from staff and students.
"It was one of the most successful pep rallies we've had," Ithomitis said, "it was really energizing."
Ithomitis said the presence of "student voice" was one of the aspects of Camden Hills Regional High School that most surprised the youth ambassadors.
"They were very impressed with student voice here, it was a major topic of conversation," he said, noting that the youth ambassadors admired the "respect within the staff and student body." He noted in Trinidad and Tobago there is a more strict division between students and teachers, according to feedback he heard from the youth ambassadors.
McKellar said the returning youth ambassadors receive a small stipend to implement projects in Trinidad and Tobago based on what they've learned from their experience in the U.S. In addition to visiting Maine they also spent four days in Washington, D.C., prior to arriving in Maine.
The visit to the Common Ground Country Fair was especially eye-opening, McKellar noted. She said many of the students told her they perceived the U.S. as a large, industrialized country and were surprised to see such a huge focus on local food and gardening. The same surprise applied to a misconception about family life, students assumed that the U.S. was less focused on family but found that their host family experiences bucked those misconceptions.
An interactive debriefing survey — filled out as the students' time in Maine came to an end — offered revealing insight into the experiences they had in Maine.
One question — asking students to name and explain something they thought about the United States before traveling here that turned out not to be true — elicited diverse answers.
"Before my arrival in the United States, I truly believed that it was a very diverse country, rich in heritage, history and culture. However, after my arrival, I observed that the former was indeed not so. Yes, they are blessed with a historical past, but, the U.S., to my observation, has no sort of ethnic diversity. Its dominant population is not exposed to other religions, ethnic diversity or cultural mix.," student Janelle Thomas wrote in an interactive online spreadsheet provided for the group to share their responses.
"Coming into Maine I believed that it was a small town typically 'white' state, especially after hearing that Maine was one of the whitest states, and at one point Knox county (if it still isn't) was one of the whitest counties in the country. So coming into Maine i believed that there was the white supremacist attitude that existed in the colonial days in the Caribbean, that maybe there was hostility to persons of coloured [sic] skin. This however was immediately disproved and removed from my mind. The friendliness of the people in Camden has been extremely comforting, and is a huge reason why this trip has been so wonderful; EVERYONE IS FRIENDLY! " Wrote student Siddel Ramkissoon.
Ithomitis said McKellar was responsible for coordinating much of the agenda outside of school. The youth ambassadors shadowed Camden Hills students that they were paired with based on prepared profiles. Ithomitis said many of the school day host students from Camden are members of the international club and student council.
"We just asked 'does anybody want to host?'" He explained. "Our kids responded really positively."
Ithomitis added that one of the highlights of the youth ambassadors' many opportunities to share their culture came in presentations they made to elementary students.
"The [younger students] were just so happy to see them, you could just see it on their faces," he noted.
Presently Camden Hills Regional High School is proudly flying the bright red and black flag of Trinidad and Tobago gifted by the youth ambassadors. Ithomitis and McKellar both said the students came prepared with presentations and objects representative of their native culture.
"One thing I was struck by is how proud they are of their country," said Ithomitis. "Those kids are great, they are such great spokespeople."