Gorham councilor has European adventure

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On a recent trip to Europe with a group of students, a Gorham town councilor combined adventure with lessons in Celtic culture and international politics.

Councilor Jane Willett, a retired teacher, had an adventure scaling a tower wall at a castle in Wales. In the political realm, she met a member of the British Parliament in London.

Willett was one of two people who chaperoned a group of 16 students from southern Maine on a 20-day, People to People Ambassador trip to England, Ireland and Wales. They were part of a delegation of 35 students from Maine on the trip called “Celtic Discovery 2006.”

“I like to feel I’m helping people,” Willett said.

People to People is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. President Dwight Eisenhower, who believed that the program would help solve international differences and lead to peace, instituted the program in 1956. Since then, thousands of U.S. student ambassadors have traveled abroad.

Willett, who has been a leader in the program for four years, said her group left on July 4 and returned July 23. “The kids were terrific and well behaved,” Willett said.

Each leg of the trip afforded a learning experience. In England, Willett and her student ambassadors met Patrick Nichols, a member of the British Parliament, who spoke to their group. Willett said her students were amazed to learn that a member of Parliament could also be a lobbyist.

She said Nichols was “politically correct” in his remarks about the war in Iraq. “He supported Tony Blair,” she said.

Willett said students had an opportunity to talk with Nichols. She said one young lady, who was thought to be quiet and shy, asked some good questions.

In England, even sightseeing trips provided history lessons. The group’s itinerary included the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare.

In Ireland, they visited a 2,000-year old castle, once a Roman fort. The trip also afforded a stop at the famous Blarney Castle where kissing a stone promises a gift of eloquence, according to folk lure. “The kids had the opportunity to kiss the Blarney Stone,” Willett said.

A common question in Ireland for the Americans student ambassadors was why hasn’t the United States had a female president. “That was a neat political question,” Willett said.

The People to People trip gave the kids an opportunity to meet new friends and learn about other cultures. “They get to know people,” Willett said.

Each student in Willett’s group stayed for three days with an Irish family. They learned traditional Irish games and dancing as well as learning to play a tune on a tin whistle.

Willett also had the chance to have a thrill of her own on the trip. Outfitted with a special harness and ropes, she climbed a tower and cascaded down a 90-foot-high wall at a replica of a medieval castle near Bangor in Wales. They also visited Stonehenge, which dates to 3000 BC, with its construction of stones that has baffled scientists.

Students from the sixth grade through high school are eligible to participate in the People to People program. Willett said each student needed to be recommended by two teachers, a guidance counselor and an adult.

The selection process includes a personal interview. “We get super kids,” Willett said.

The process gets underway in the fall when students are selected for a trip the following year. Students attend monthly meetings and research countries they’ll visit. During the trip, students are required to keep journals.

People to People doesn’t cover costs of trips, which can run about $4,000. Willett said many students work to pay their own tickets while families and service organizations also provide help.

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