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Global Pathways Project explores the world, no passport required

Jeff Lange, Founder of Global Pathways - Arianne Teeple
Jeff Lange, Founder of Global Pathways - Arianne Teeple

The folks who comprise the Global Pathways Project are not out to save the world -- they just want to give Baltimore area residents a greater understanding of different cultures and their inhabitants. If that means attending an international soccer match, sampling authentic Thai food or introducing middle schoolers to new cultures through arts and crafts, then they are achieving their goal; if that inspires someone to pack their bags for another country, all the better.

Founded in 2005 by Jeff Lange and fellow travel enthusiasts, the local non-profit has seen steady growth. At the time of its upstart, the 30-somethings, several of whom worked for an organization that coordinates internship exchanges to enhance cultural awareness and cooperation, often found themselves talking about their own international experiences and how it opened their eyes to other cultures.

Soon, the handful of like-minded friends discovered that their return to the U.S. was accompanied by more than a healthy case of jet lag. They each had experienced something of a culture shock upon their return to the States. They knew they were changed for the better by the places they visited, people they met and cultures they experienced, and they wanted an outlet to share their enthusiasm.

"If you experience 'reverse culture shock' when you come back to what was familiar, you've changed," explains Aaron Reinhart, a Global Pathway Project Board member. "You know you are different and that there other ways of doing things."

The ultimate goal of Global Pathways Project (GPP) is for 100 percent of the local community to have an international experience. They agree that it may sound lofty at first, but that's before they define "international experience." For them, an international experience can be as simple as trying authentic Ethiopian food at a local restaurant or attending this summer's World Football (American soccer) match at M&T Bank Stadium, and that puts their goal easily within reach.

But it's not just about the experience -- GPP wants people to share their stories with others. "We want people with international experience to tell other people how great it was. It's most effective to pass it on through word of mouth," says Reinhart.

Who they are

The core membership of the Global Pathways Project brings a variety of different international experiences to the group. Lange, who traveled abroad for the first time in college and was initially homesick, has since traveled to some 32 countries. On the other hand, Reinhart has not stopped traveling since he first left the country as a child. This summer, he and GPP project coordinator Ashley Donley plan to spend their honeymoon meandering from the Bordeaux region of France through Northern Italy to Slovenia and Croatia. Her first international experience was after college when she took a job teaching English in France.

Typical members include global travelers, international educators, authentic international cuisine enthusiasts, international sports followers, and anyone interested in learning more about the world.

"GPP is about learning how people are basically more alike than different. It is about the realization that there aren't always right and wrong ways of doing, speaking, living, praying, working, leading; there are just different ways," says Lange.

Together GPP seeks to expose more and more people to cultural differences across the globe through a variety of projects managed by volunteer coordinators.

Traveling the globe from their backyard

Anyone who enjoys travel and makes it a point to do it whenever possible, could likely be called a self-starter. They are just the kind of people who get involved with GPP. They're unafraid to arrive in a town without a reservation and they are not afraid to take on a project. Similarly, the volunteers at GPP are people who have ideas that contribute to the goal and are willing to do what it takes to make them work.

Ashley Donley is one of those people. From September through June she's a sixth-grade science teacher. She spends her summers coordinating GPP's annual Baltimore International Camp for 25 middle school-aged children from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore. Now in its third year, the kids, who come from underprivileged households around the city, spend a week in August immersed in a new culture. The 2009 camp focused on the Middle East. This year the kids will learn about the countries and cultures of South America.

The week-long cultural immersion program begins with a lesson showing the children where their city is on a world map. "It's hard to get the kids to understand Baltimore's place in the world. The camp gives them an appreciation for all cultures. It exposes them to the cultures beyond the city and it exposes them to the cultures in city," explains Nikia Darden, director of Education for the Boys and Girls Club of Maryland.

The first day also includes a discussion of the campers' perception of the region they will "study." Later in the week, when they meet high school students from that part of the world enrolled in Patterson High School's ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program, misconceptions quickly fall away.

"Their initial perception is what they've seen in the news and it's mostly negative," says Darden. "Having older students come and speak about their experiences and how they are treated in the U.S. helps the kids understand the full story."

Throughout the camp, stereotypes break down and understanding of the "new" culture builds through a variety of activities. Plans for the 2010 session include making pi´┐Żatas; learning the Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance; creating carnival masks; taking a walking tour of Fells Point; touring Baltimore's Basilica with a Latino priest; and learning Salsa dancing.

And of course, there's the food through which they will also study and explore the culture. The campers will not only dine in authentic South American restaurants, they will visit local markets to experience new fruits, and try their hand at making salsa.

At end of the week, groups of campers give presentations on what they've learned. For the GPP volunteers it's the most rewarding part of the week. Throughout the camp, which is held at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon, they watch happily as campers fearlessly try new foods or become engaged in projects and discussions. But, it's "mission accomplished" for the GPP folks when the kids demonstrate their newly gained understanding of the culture and express a desire for more international experiences.

GPP founder Lange knew the 2009 camp was a success when, on the last day, a child stood up to give a presentation on a Middle Eastern country. He explains, "One kid in the group stood up and said several things in Arabic. It's hard enough to get up, but to get up and speak Arabic . . . I was really impressed by that."

While not all the campers try their hand at the language, they all want to know "what's next?" Lange hopes the camp will evolve to the point where they are sending kids out of the country, a goal he feels is within reach thanks to the connections and contacts GPP members have around the globe.

Bon voyage

GPP reaches out to adults by cultivating their global connections and international experiences through other projects such as the International Club, which has recently hosted events including wine tasting and sushi making. These low-key, authentic international experiences are usually held at Baltimore area restaurants that support GPP's annual fundraiser.

"The International Club is for anyone interested in anything remotely international to come together and get a feel for whatever the event may be," explains Lange. "You don't have to be an international traveler, or have a degree . . . if you are interested, we want you to come."

While guests at GPP events are a constantly rotating group, depending on the activity, the group is diversifying and each person has his or her own reason for wanting to be involved in either planning how to spread their passion for the world's cultures or sharing, experiencing and expanding their personal knowledge of the world.

For Lange and many of the group's founders, it's personal. "It's not just my knowledge," he says. "I know a lot about a lot of different parts of the world and I am so happy I have those experiences, but if you boil it down to one reason, travel is empowerment. I wouldn't be who I am today without that."

"Despite what I've learned about different cultures, people are pretty much the same. There is more common ground than uncommon and it gives you hope that we're going to make it on this planet," he continues.

So, while GPP's stated goal is to educate people about the world, perhaps by working to expose as many people as possible to an international experience, they might just help to save it.

To become a member or volunteer for any of GPP's projects including this summer Baltimore International Camp, please visit the organization's website.

Freelance writer Meredith Bower is a Baltimore native and mother of four. She and her family enjoy "city life" not just in Baltimore, but across the country and around the world.

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Jeff Lange, Founder of Global Pathways - Arianne Teeple
All other photos courtesy of the Global Pathways Program
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