2006.04.06: April 6, 2006: Headlines: COS - Samoa: Service: Anchorage Daily News : Samoa RPCV Silver Hjellen sponsors grandchildren in vacations that combine travel with volunteer work

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Samoa: Peace Corps Samoa : The Peace Corps in Samoa: 2006.04.06: April 6, 2006: Headlines: COS - Samoa: Service: Anchorage Daily News : Samoa RPCV Silver Hjellen sponsors grandchildren in vacations that combine travel with volunteer work

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Samoa RPCV Silver Hjellen sponsors grandchildren in vacations that combine travel with volunteer work

Samoa RPCV Silver Hjellen sponsors grandchildren in vacations that combine travel with volunteer work

She took granddaughter Laura Wesser to Ireland to work for the Peace and Reconciliation Center and Laura's sister Lindsey to Ghana to teach English, paint a school and work in a clinic. And because granddaughter Laurisa Deacon hopes to study in Japan someday, Hjellen took her there with Volunteers for Peace to work on a reforestation project.

Samoa RPCV Silver Hjellen sponsors grandchildren in vacations that combine travel with volunteer work

Spending spring break in serivce

Samaritan sponsors grandchildren in vacations that combine travel with volunteer work

By DEBRA McKINNEY
Anchorage Daily News

Published: April 6, 2006
Last Modified: April 6, 2006 at 03:02 AM

Caption: Chris Feller, left, a Mears Middle School student, helps sift sand for a sea turtle hatchery at Gandoca Beach in Costa Rica. He and his sister spent spring break working on the project with their grandmother Silver Hjellen, who sponsors volunteer vacations for all her grandchildren.

A trip to southern climes is about as nice a gift as a grandmother could give to Alaska kids staring out a window at fresh snow in March. But because she's a global-minded grandmother, this one had a twist.

Chris Feller, an eighth-grader at Mears Middle School, and Erin Feller, a sophomore at Dimond High, spent half of their two-week extended spring vacation volunteering for a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica.

Silver Hjellen, 65, has been doing these kinds of community service vacations for years and has made it her goal to take each of her 10 grandchildren on one of their own.

She took granddaughter Laura Wesser to Ireland to work for the Peace and Reconciliation Center and Laura's sister Lindsey to Ghana to teach English, paint a school and work in a clinic. And because granddaughter Laurisa Deacon hopes to study in Japan someday, Hjellen took her there with Volunteers for Peace to work on a reforestation project.

About the time each grandchild turns 16, as Erin soon will, they know they're next.

"That, to me, is about the right age," Hjellen said, "before they really start working, before they get too serious with a boyfriend or a girlfriend.

"If they find a country, I'll find a program."

Erin chose Costa Rica, and her brother got invited along. He still gets to pick a community-service trip of his own in a couple of years. He's already looking forward to it.

HOOKED ON HELPING

This volunteer bug goes back a way. In 1988, Hjellen was a forensic chemist at the state crime lab and her husband, Gil, chief of investigations at the Department of Revenue.

"We both had really good jobs with the state and just quit and gave up everything," she said.

They joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Western Samoa. He taught economics; she worked for the Red Cross and later at a hospital.

"I loved it," she said. "To me it was the beginning of the rest of my life. For Gil, that was enough volunteering for the rest of his life."

Well, not quite. A few years ago, they spent a week renovating bathroom facilities at a center for disabled children on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona.

But mostly this has been her thing, a way of seeing the world while giving something back. Among her first trips was going to Africa for three months with her "travel soulmate," LuRue Troyer, and working for Habitat for Humanity. Then she got hooked into Global Volunteers, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that provides travelers with volunteer opportunities in many parts of the world.

Since then, she has done work in China, Poland, Vietnam, India, Ghana, the Cook Islands, Kenya, Tanzania, Ireland and elsewhere, mostly through Global Volunteers. She has even taken the group's training and been a co-leader on trips.

"This work is my passion," she said.

By extending this opportunity to her grandchildren, Hjellen not only takes them out of their comfort zone -- exposing them to cultures different from their own -- but also offers them a chance to make a difference.

"It's the best way I know to promote peace in the world," she said.

SEA TURTLE WORK

This trip to Costa Rica wasn't easy to put together: Finding a program that fit the kids' spring break schedule was a challenge. She ended up making arrangements with England-based i-to-i Volunteer Travel, which has put together trips for volunteers wanting to help with everything from tsunami relief to street kids in India.

That organization hooked Hjellen up with Association ANAI, a group devoted to community-based, sustainable development. She and the kids ended up in a remote Costa Rican village working on a sea turtle conservation project at a place called Gandoca Beach. Their duties included patrolling beaches at night and helping with the building of a hatchery.

Except for Canada, Hjellen's grandchildren hadn't been out of their own country or traveled far from what's familiar to them. This trip would have them doing a home-stay with a local family in a place where very little would be familiar.

As the departure date grew near, they were excited but a little apprehensive.

"I was kind of nervous about ..."

"Bugs," Erin's grandfather said, finishing her sentence.

"Yeah, bugs."

The bugs were big but not so bad, and they got used to them. Even when a gargantuan beetle landed in Erin's hair. They got used to the bats too.

They enjoyed seeing fireflies. Same for the iguana and the monkeys, even though the monkeys were rude and threw apples at them.

"During the night we did beach patrol," Chris said. "You walked up and down the beach looking for turtles. If you saw a turtle, it was probably going to lay eggs. And if it laid eggs in a place that the water could get them, or erosion, then you took the eggs and relocated them to the hatchery."

One night on patrol, they found what they were looking for: a leatherback digging in the sand. Erin wrote home about it in an e-mail:

"Last night at 1:30 a.m. we saw a turtle! We got to stand by and watch it lay eggs. It laid 99 fertile eggs and about 34 nonfertile eggs. The turtle dug a hole a meter deep with her back flippers and the eggs just plopped out into the hole like five or six at a time for about 30 minutes. We touched the turtle and it felt like leather."

Years from now, more than the strange food, the giant bugs, the horror of going without a mirror for a week, this is the night the kids will remember. And that's exactly what their grandmother hopes.

Reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at dmckinney@adn.com





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Story Source: Anchorage Daily News

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