AUSTRALIA: LOVE AT FIRST EXPERIENCE!
by Katie Sacca

(Editor's Note: Katie Sacca is a senior boarding student at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., where she plays field hockey and is captain of the ski team. She lives in Gloucester with her parents when she is not away at school or traveling. Joshua Pearson is a seventh grade student at the Quabbin Regional Middle School in Barre, Mass., where he lives with his parents and three younger brothers. He enjoys reading, chatting with friends on the Internet, skiing, acting and travel. In his free time he plays the piano and hangs out with friends. Josh has been totally blind since birth.)

It could have been any other ordinary day at the beach; going for a long swim, lounging in a deck chair in the sun, eating ice cream bars and Popsicles, and hearing kids laugh and play all around. It might have been an ordinary day -- except the swimming was actually snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef, and the deck chair was on a moored pontoon 38 miles off the coast of Australia. I was relaxed and worry-free as the 42 11- and 12-year- olds that I was traveling with played around on the boat and in the water, snapping underwater photos of sea turtles and brightly colored schools of fish. I knew that among the 42 there was one who was getting a totally different experience from all the other kids, one who was inciting a certain envious fascination in the other kids -- he had his own personal diver with him, bringing up such tactile delights as bits of hard and soft coral, sea cucumbers and sea stars, and even coaxing a large "friendly" fish over for a treat and a pat. This one was Joshua Pearson, a thoughtful and perceptive 12-year-old from Barre, Mass.

Josh's admission into the People to People Student Ambassador Program was a milestone for both visually impaired students and the program itself. Josh has been blind since he was born; the People to People program had never offered admission to any blind students in the past. When three of Josh's teachers at the Ruggles Lane Elementary School recommended him for the program, however, People to People took a second look.

Upon accepting Josh into the program, the administration at People to People began to take special considerations. They concluded that one of Joshua's parents would need to accompany him on the 16-day exploration of Australia. Josh protested immediately that his parents would hinder his independence and thwart prospective friendships by hovering too close. Once he voiced these concerns, another suggestion for a guide was brought up: the 16-year-old daughter of Josh's vision teacher.

My mother has always encouraged me to take chances and risks if it means I will gain a valuable lesson or experience. As a new ski instructor, she suggested I volunteer with the Adaptive Ski Program (for handicapped/special needs skiers) at nearby Wachusett Mountain where I taught. My first real interaction with Josh was as his ski guide, a terrifyingly responsible occupation for a nervous 14-year-old. As I got to know Josh, my confidence grew and he developed a love for skiing. Soon, the two of us were able to fearlessly traverse the intermediate terrain and even enjoy it. So when my mother first asked me if I would be interested in going to Australia I was very enthusiastic. When I learned, however, that I would solely be responsible for both Josh's comfort and his enjoyment of the trip, my enthusiasm waned. I was a little hesitant, but in the face of an otherwise college-visit-laden summer, I stepped up to the job.

Before boarding the plane for our tediously long flight to Brisbane, Australia, I needed to learn a few things about traveling with a visually impaired person. To see Joshua in action, my mother took me to Ruggles Lane Elementary School to witness his day-to-day activities. As I followed Joshua down the winding corridors of the school, I had to keep reminding myself that he was visually impaired. He moved confidently and occasionally swept his red-tipped cane along the ground for extra assurance. He walked swiftly to his destination, and then, in a final act of chivalry, held the door to his classroom open for me. (I had hoped my trailing him would go unnoticed.) I remembered with some difficulty that the adept and confident boy that I had just shadowed was the reason that I was receiving a ticket to Australia.

The departure date arrived seemingly days afterwards, inducing feelings of extreme excitement and nervousness, alternating. We had our "People to People" red polo shirts on, our luggage was on the plane, and we were ready to meet the Los Angeles People to People coordinators and our group.

A list of things that I had to remember was running through my head and I was struggling with managing sighted guide and finding our boarding passes and not losing our passports when I realized finally that I had so much responsibility in this position and could not escape if something went wrong. This would be the first time in my life that I would have to put someone else first in my personal priority list, and it would certainly be an adventure. As soon as we joined the group, however, there was a chorus of "Hey, Josh!" and several girls came running over to lead Josh to where they were sitting. The room we were in was overwhelmingly crowded with kids of all sizes and ages wearing the same red polo shirts we were wearing. All I'll say is that I'm very glad I wasn't a typical passenger on that flight!

After we arrived and exchanged money, we headed straight to the zoo on our coach bus. The kids were in heaven at the zoo between the crocodile show, baby tiger cubs, and petting zoo. Josh especially loved petting the kangaroos. Minutes after encountering his first kangaroo, he informed me that he would "love to own one." After 15 more minutes of kangaroo petting and feeding, owning a kangaroo turned into owning a large section of Australia that he would cordon off exclusively for the use of his herd of kangaroos. Josh was not, however, very fond of the emus, mostly based on the reaction of the girls in the group (screaming and running away). At this point, Josh was still getting comfortable with being in a new country and so I was doing sighted guide, but by dinnertime Josh was off and running (walking, rather) with a new friend.

Josh learned many things during his 16 days of traveling in Australia. If I were to retell the whole adventure, it would take up far too much space, so I will pick out several significant experiences of the trip.

When we arrived in the outback after nearly nine hours of driving, countless bags of candy, three movies, and a seemingly infinite chorus of "Bingo," everyone was relieved to get off the bus. When we stepped off and were directed to a long picnic table with a roof but no walls, everyone realized that this stay would be very different from the comfortable hotel stay of the previous few nights. Three meals were cooked over a fire in kettles and pits, the children were four or five to a tiny room and the communal bathrooms were a few minutes' walk from everyone (not to mention taking showers was discouraged). Despite the vast differences between the outback farm stay and normal living (to us, anyway), nearly everyone enjoyed the farm stay.

The first night, Josh was able to indulge in one of his favorite pleasures, telling ghost stories in front of a roaring fire. We learned some classic Australian bush songs and toasted marshmallows and heard ghost stories and went happily to bed early, eager for the next day's events. After breakfast at 6:30, we were divided into small groups for the main event of the morning: horseback riding through the bush. Josh had his own horse, but was being led by one of the farm staff on another horse. Josh loved the horseback ride, and adapted to it easily and confidently.

During the two-day farm stay, Josh made a few new friends: the farm staff. Two of the grizzled cowboys took an immediate liking to Josh, giving him special demonstrations with farm equipment and telling him their best jokes. Josh delighted them with his impersonations of Australian accents and his accounts and opinions of Australia after four days. ("It's just such a wonderful country! I hope to live here when I'm older.") He amazed them with his confidence and incredible optimism. When later we went on a bush walk that turned into a strenuous hike up 45-degree incline rocky surface, Josh's determination never wavered -- although he did not hesitate to let me know that he despised the hike. Even though the hike up was difficult, for the sighted person it was completely worth it. We could see for miles and miles all around, yet there was no sign of civilization (besides the glint of the Jeep that was parked at the bottom of the steep mountain). What really amazed the farm staff was not only Josh's trust in me during the hike, but that he was completely satisfied with knowing that the view was magnificent, and had no remorse for climbing with no apparent reward. They were also very impressed with his audacity on the climb down, which proved to be almost more difficult due to a greater number of loose rocks on the steep way down. Although the experience was not Josh's favorite, he remained in good spirits throughout the day's events, which included learning how to throw boomerangs and crack stock whips.

After two long rides, we arrived in Yeppoon, a small town on the coast of eastern Australia. After a fun night of ice cream and the movies (Spiderman 2), we went to sleep in anticipation of an exciting day in the Capricorn Caves! When we got there, we started out in the larger caverns, with all the lights on. The guide brought us through caverns and up narrow sets of stairs and across rickety ladders. We emerged in a giant dark cavern and once the lights were switched on, we saw a sight that could only be described by its name: Cathedral Cavern. There were pews and a pulpit with built-in stairs and a little platform. After we sat down and got settled in the pews, the guide turned off all the lights. It was amazing to be in complete darkness! Without knowing it, when the guide plunged the 48 sighted people in the room into darkness, we were really experiencing what Josh deals with every day! Once the lights were switched on, we listened to a version of "Amazing Grace" to demonstrate the acoustics, which were amazing! It was like a real cathedral, only we were deep inside a huge mountain.

After the music, our guide asked if anyone would like to sing. Josh, an avid singer, immediately volunteered. After a terrific rendition of a song from "My Girl," Josh was greeted with enthusiastic applause. One of the things that Josh likes best is performing, so everyone could tell that he was overjoyed at this opportunity. After another song, we were invited to stand on the steps of the pulpit and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I thought that it would just be a silly procedure but it was really amazing, when we realized that it would be the only time we would be singing our national anthem for a foreign crowd deep in a cave on the tropic of Capricorn!

After making our way back to the entrance chamber, we were given four choices of activity for the next half-hour. The choices ranged from walking back out the easiest way possible to crawling through a tiny chamber for several minutes, and two other choices in between. We were allowed to choose which we wanted, with the easiest option labeled 1 and the hardest labeled 4. When I asked Josh which he wanted, he immediately answered, "Four." Not wanting to hold Josh back, we began in the direction of option four. Personally, I was very nervous about taking Josh through a tiny crawl space, but if he wasn't, maybe it would be OK. Before we got to the group, an instructor told me that it would not be appropriate for Josh to participate in Option Four. This was Josh's first run-in with something that he was being denied, so he was a little disappointed, but we compromised with option two. Even though the guides had said it was OK for him to go through the narrow zigzag pass of option two, I was still unsure of how it would go. Going through the "zigzag" required holding a candle and climbing ladders. I declined a candle, but another family was also going through and offered to help. One followed in front and one followed in back, leaving me to navigate Josh through the pass. Although it was nerve-racking for all the sighted people in the pass, Josh had a great time and wasn't nervous or worried at all. This was one of the main things that Josh had to learn when we were in Australia: that everything was not a piece of cake in terms of accessibility for him. We were in a foreign country and unfortunately could not provide Josh with every opportunity, but luckily Josh had a great time in the caves and had no bad feelings about not being able to do option four.

So as I remember sitting on that lounge chair 38 miles out to sea on a floating pontoon, I think about how lucky I was to have gotten the opportunity to go to Australia. Yes, the opportunity came with a job attached to it, but the "job" was enjoyable and an eye-opening experience for everyone involved. I came back from Australia with a greater sense of maturity and responsibility and an appreciation and delight in helping people better understand each other and their surroundings. Josh came back with confidence, gushing about all of his adventures. The other 11- and 12- year-olds in the program came back with an understanding that some people need special services to be able to enjoy day-to-day activities, but that they are just the same and love to have fun in the same ways. These kids really learned how to accept and even take pride in helping out Josh whenever he needed it -- but when he didn't need anything, he was just like any other kid! At the airport back in Boston, the kids were happy to see their parents, but sad to see all their new friends go.

While Josh was off saying good-bye to a friend and giving her his e- mail address, a delegation leader remarked what a great addition to the group Josh and I were, and I responded that Josh (and I) were extremely fortunate to have the opportunity as well. All in all, everyone in the People to People delegation from western Massachusetts certainly got more out of their trip than they expected.

(Note: The People to People Student Ambassador Program provides opportunities for grade school, junior high and senior high students to explore domestic and foreign destinations, learning about the history, government, economy and culture of the areas they visit. People to People International was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities involving the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures. For more information, call (509) 534-0430, or send an e-mail message to [email protected])

CAPTIONS

On our way from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast, we stopped at the Australia Zoo. Josh was the only one to touch the wild crocodile (he was a little leery!), but he and another student ambassador happily played with baby albino goats.

Joshua and a koala share a hug at the Australian National Park in Noosa. In his essay for application to the Student Ambassador Program, Josh wrote that his dream was to go to Australia and hold a koala.


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