365 days. 33 countries. 12 humanitarian projects. 1 question: Are they courageous or reckless?
GROTON — The idea crystallized during a business trip to Peru in 2009. Teresa Keller, who turned 40 this year, was brooding about where her life was headed. Already in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend and moving out of the house they’d shared together, Keller was commuting three hours daily to her job in Boston as executive director of the Archaeological Institute of America, while raising three children for whom “quality mom time’’ was often more wish than reality.
The Peru trip, her first outside North America, had exposed Keller to gut-wrenching poverty and awe-inspiring natural beauty. Something clicked on her long flight home. If her life was changing, she reasoned, why not really shake things up?
“I’d always planned to go a certain distance in my career and acquire the tools to really do something,’’ recalls Keller, surrounded by packing boxes and stuffed backpacks in the soon-to-be-empty home she rents in Groton. “This was it.’’
Tomorrow, Keller and crew — daughters Jennifer Manglass, 18, and Isabella Gagliardo, 12; son Alexander Gagliardo, 13; and family friend Meagan Franz, 17 — embark on a journey that many families fantasize about, but few have the means or resolve to undertake. For the next 12 months, they’ll travel around the world, volunteering at a dozen humanitarian projects stretching from Europe to Asia to South America. Keller has sold many of her family’s personal possessions to finance the trip and is pulling two of her children out of school for a year. She’s created a nonprofit organization, Round the World With Us, and website (www.rtwwithus.org) on which the five travelers will blog, podcast, and fund-raise for these projects.
Keller acknowledges that wanting to make the world a better place is a nearly universal impulse: Who hasn’t fleetingly taken stock and thought, my family and I could be doing more to help others? But the reality is, such a sabbatical is a daunting, even crazy, proposition. Kids have schoolwork and friends tugging at them. Adults have careers, bills, and other responsibilities to meet. The world can be a scary, dangerous place. And how great an impact can one family have, anyway? Most of us wouldn’t get beyond leafing through a few travel brochures.
Keller maintains their trip is “no longer just about us, but about how much of difference ordinary people can make when they work together. We are ordinary, and not everyone can pick up and leave everything. But everyone can make a small contribution, even a dollar or two, and help change other peoples’ lives.’’
In that sense, she says, her family can become a vehicle for those wishing to improve the world without leaving home. “But it’ll also be a great learning experience for us.’’ Part of their mission will be contributing history and geography lesson materials for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, in partnership with World Savvy, a global educational nonprofit, and Kids for Peace Camp, based in Maryland. Isabella and Alexander, meanwhile, will be home-schooled for a year, taking math and science courses online as they travel.
Landing in Russia first, the group will tour several European capitals before moving on to the Middle East and Africa. After spending two months in India — their longest stay in any one country — they’ll touch down in Indochina and the Far East before heading to South and Central America. On Aug. 1, 2011, if all goes as planned, they’ll fly home, having visited 33 countries in 365 amazing and no doubt grueling days.
They’ll travel light, taking only a few articles of clothing apiece, plus three laptop computers. They’ll stay in youth hostels and thatched-roof huts, their meals largely dependent on local cuisine.
“I want it to be as authentic as possible,’’ says Keller, who figures their toughest stay will be in the slums of Calcutta, where they’ll spend four weeks working in a children’s center. The center teaches vocational, language, and life skills to young children. By prearrangement, Keller’s crew will help implement these programs over the course of a month. “Kids hear about world issues from adults,’’ she says. “I want mine to hear about world issues from other kids.’’
The most exotic adventure planned is a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. The heart and soul of the trip, though, is the volunteer work they’ll do. In Kenya, they’ll dig an irrigation well for a village ravaged by HIV and AIDS. In Cambodia, they’ll help build a village school. Other projects getting their donations and sweat equity include a Peruvian day-care facility, Tanzanian reforestation program, and community library in Vietnam.
Travel, food, and lodging will cost about $125,000, Keller estimates. To pay for the trip, they’ve sold off clothes, athletic equipment, furniture, even the family minivan. Keller, who quit her job, has also borrowed against her retirement funds to help underwrite expenses. Her goal is $100,000 in charitable donations. Personal expenses are all being met out of her own pocket, she says.
Of course, selling off old toys was one thing. Persuading three teenagers to leave school, friends, and home for a year? A much harder sale.
Isabella, 12, remembers her mom reading “Three Cups of Tea,’’ Greg Mortenson’s memoir about building schools in rural Pakistan, to them at bedtime one night, hoping to inspire her children to think more globally. Halfway through “Tea,’’ says Isabella, the idea of taking a round-the-world, save-the-world trip came up.
“We never finished the book,’’ she says with a rueful laugh. Missing her friends will be tough, she says, though conquering her fear of flying could be even tougher.
Alexander, 13, still questions whether the trip is a good idea. Though he won’t have to repeat a school grade, he’s raised concerns about health, safety, language, and money issues. So, is he OK with going?
“I don’t really have a choice,’’ he says with a wary smile. When pressed, he admits his biggest anxiety is returning home with his mom out of work and no house to live in. (Keller was offered a 6-month job leave but turned it down.)
As the Salwen family of Atlanta can attest, even the most altruistic project can meet with skepticism and second-guessing. In their book “The Power of Half,’’ which came out earlier this year, Kevin Salwen and his teenage daughter Hannah write of their family’s decision to sell their home and donate half the proceeds to building projects in rural Ghana. Not only was it difficult choosing the right charity, the Salwens recount, but as the media broadcast their story widely, they were accused of everything from relentless self-promotion to neglecting worthy charities back home.
“We learned that we can do the most good by listening — to our hearts, like when they question why we need the stuff we buy,’’ writes Kevin Salwen in a recent e-mail, “and to the people with whom we partner, like the villagers in Ghana. People want to create their own futures.’’ He hopes Keller’s family discovers what his did: “that the best answers come from the people brave enough to break their own cycle of poverty.’’
Keller, who hopes to write her own book someday, has seen raised eyebrows, too. “Even my own grandmother has asked, ‘What about the kids in the US?’ ’’ she says. Others have told her personal horror stories about Third World travel with children, or questioned whether spending this much money might jeopardize her family’s long-term security.
Undeterred, she writes on her blog of taking “a light attitude toward risk, discomfort, and adversity,’’ an attitude she’s determined to take with her. “That’s how you should live life anyway,’’ she says. “And I’ve never imagined I couldn’t take care of my kids once I get back.’’
Manglass seems to share her mother’s optimism. Taking a gap year between high school and college, she also spent two weeks volunteering in an orphanage in Madurai, India, last summer. The experience was a good test run for this trip, she says. “Even if their situation is difficult, the people I met were hopeful. They have plans for the future. It was really eye-opening.’’
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.