Journ Alum Makes a Difference While Seeing the World Abroad

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Spears, at Friendship Village, a place where people affected by Agent Orange can reside. “I bonded with a little boy named Hai, he was about 8 years old and had Down Syndrome. We played all the time and he taught me how to count to five in Vietnamese,” Spears said.

Anjelica Rubin, Staff Writer

Unlike the majority of the Class of 2017, State High graduate and Journalism alum Sarah Beth Spears chose a path many wouldn’t even consider. Instead of the grueling class days and late study nights as a freshman in college, Spears has traded the average post-high school experience for a once in a lifetime opportunity across the world.

“I realized I wanted to take a gap year my junior year,” Spears said. “I had just moved to State College and had no idea where or what I wanted to do in college. The whole thought of my future stressed me out.” Spears had found out gap years were possible through research and a fair in Philadelphia where students in high school can meet with travel companies suited for students taking a year off college.

This opportunity led to Spears’ first meeting with Adventures Rolling Cross Country. “Once I met the leader of ARCC, I knew this program was the right one for me, we just clicked right away,” Spears said. ARCC specializes in summer and gap year programs throughout the world. With programs in Cuba, India, Patagonia, Fiji, and countries through South America. Selective programs explore countries in continents around the world such as the Southern Asia program which Spears selected.

“I’ve always dreamed of traveling the world, I feel at most peace when I am, and this program seemed to fit for me,” Spears says of her decision to travel abroad right out of high school. The Southern Asia program will be exploring China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Spears left on September 16th, and will be traveling with only a big backpack until December 13th. She’s with 10 other students and 2 leaders from all over the United States. “I absolutely love my group, we all really click, and contribute to our group. This is the best decision I have ever made, and I am so lucky and happy to be traveling with them and exploring our world together.”

Spears is in Hanoi, Vietnam now, and will be residing there for a few weeks. “By far the best part of Asia has been visiting Friendship Village and helping victims and family members who have been affected by the Vietnam War and Agent Orange.” Friendship Village is a home for veterans and their children, they can stay for 3-5 years or permanently depending on their situation, and if their conditions are severe enough.

Agent Orange was an extremely deadly chemical dioxide that the US spread over Vietnam during the war. They sprayed Agent Orange so crops and forests would die,  thus leading to difficult conditions for the opposing side. Little did they know, Agent Orange had more severe side effects and many veterans have serious health issues including kidney failure, cancer, and organ problems. Agent Orange affected veterans offspring as well. Birth defects such as missing limbs, bones, eyes, fluid in the brain, Down Syndrome, deafness and severe mental functioning are all possibilities.

Friendship Village is a place for kids and veterans alike to get the encouragement and help they need to continue on in this world. There is a long waiting list at Friendship Village as many families are too poor and don’t have the money to support their kids at home. “It makes me think about how much we take for granted in the US, especially in our education,” Spears said. “Special education in Vietnam is rare. It breaks my heart when I hear  some of the older kids talk about how they are a burden to their families because of their disabilities and inability to work as one would usually do.”

Vietnam veterans live in Friendship Village, and many treat the kids as their own, especially those who chose not to reproduce due to the birth defects. Spears was able to talk through a translator with veterans who talk about the past and enjoy the peace between the US and Vietnam now. “They were so light hearted, sharing stories of forgiveness and acceptance even though their family line is now affected by Agent Orange,” Spears said.

A big part of Friendship VIllage’s funds come from donations made by veterans, since many are growing older, funds are decreasing to keep the Village fully supported. Spears has set up a GoFundMe page for Friendship Village, “any donations help, and it’d make a huge difference in the children and veterans lives in the longrun,” Spears said.

Though Spears has had the experiences of her lifetime already, she admits it’s been challenging at times. “Its heartbreaking to know that the US caused it, of course we didn’t have the intention of causing such side effects, but meeting the children and people who are at the forefront of it all is difficult,” Spears said. “Even with all of their disadvantages, their smiles are contagious, it’s comforting to know places like Friendship Village still exist.”

Spears will be attending the University of Charleston in the upcoming school year, and though she will be cooped up in a classroom in a couple months she will never forget the impact ARCC had on her life. “If you don’t know what to do, or want to explore the world like I did, I highly recommend traveling abroad. You will learn and grow so much,” Spears said. “I love learning and living in different cultures, It’s a very beautiful, exhilarating feeling I never want to let go.”

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