Tuesday, June 28, 2016

After Up With People....

Anette and Jen reunited in Germany in 2005.
Up With People ended on June 30th, 1996.  It was a sad, sad time of goodbyes.  My heart still hurts when I think of watching the bus with my European friends in it driving away.  My journal describes how when my best friend left I felt empty.  Completely empty.  Sad times.  I flew home to Minnesota and the next day my parents, grandparents, cousin, and I went on a road trip to Glacier National Park in Montana for a week.  I got over all my jet-lag on that trip and was able to talk and talk and talk and talk to my parents about my last half of my UWP year.  It was a refreshing time.  

I started college that next fall.  It was hard being a freshman surrounded by other freshmen who were homesick and struggling while I was used to traveling the world!  It was hard to connect at first.  Classes were frustrating.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher and I had been doing presentations in classrooms for the past year and now I had to take Political Science and Religion 100 when all I wanted to do was get back into a classroom!  That was tough, but slowly I acclimated to college life.  I made wonderful friends, played in the orchestra, worked with four year olds at a daycare, and was involved with the Christian outreach group.  

I had my first mini reunion at college.  Jill Evenson Abenth came to a Christmas concert one year and I got to see her and show her my UWP scrapbook.  She had graduated from the very college I was attending.  

One summer I spent a weekend with Juli Doudiet Seeger and her family.  We watched UWP videos, told stories, and laughed a lot.  That was a fun time.  We've had a few other reunions with Minnesota folks (Jill, Juli, Latisha Schultz Zochert, and I).  I hope we can have some more reunions soon!

Gavin Flexor attended the same college as me for one year.  He was in the same dorm as some of my good friends.  Small world!  We got together and talked UWP lingo a few times too.

UWP came to my college to do a show one year and I saw Nina Ufer doing the dance for "Confidence."  She was amazing!  It was fun to see a show again and so thrilling to get to show my college friends a little piece of what our year was like!  

Roma Shestakov came to visit me and my family the Thanksgiving of 1997.  It was so good to see him and spend time together.  My whole family loved him!  We even visited his host family and they gave him a ride on their snowmobile!  Years later, when Roma was living in Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to meet up with him and his wonderful wife, Stacey for an evening.  So fun!   
Roma and Jennifer, reunited in Minnesota in 1997.
I thought that Roma may be the only UWP friend to visit my parents' home in Alexandria, but the following summer, Claudia Vos came to spend two weeks with us!  We had such a wonderful time!   We visited state parks and museums and explored Minnesota together.  She taught me a Dutch song and we had tooth brushing parties.  Crazy girl!  Good memories.  So fun!

Claudia and Jenni-Ann, reunited in Minnesota in 1998.
The summer of 1998 I also had a wonderful experience doing a two month tour across North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  My team led Vacation Bible Schools, put on concerts, led youth group events, and led Sunday morning worship.  I gave a message/sermon about my service learning experiences in UWP about eight times that summer!    

Five years after UWP I wrote letters to every single host family I had!  I wrote to them on the day I arrived at their home five years earlier.  I had a form letter to begin, but then I made each letter personal.  I enclosed a recent photo of myself.  I was overwhelmed by how many host families wrote back to me.  It was incredible!

I graduated from college in 2000 and became an elementary education teacher.  My first three years I taught second grade at a small Christian school in southern Minnesota.  I had 10-12 kids each year.  I had my students write letters to MANY of my Up With People friends throughout those three years.  We had such fun learning about Europe and Asia and Africa.  It was so exciting having my UWP friends write letters back to my students.  They treasured those letters.  I treasured those letters!  I photocopied them and still use parts of many of them as I teach about different countries.

The summer of 2003 two of my best friends and I took a three week road trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada.  We stayed with Jill Deri's parents in Ottawa and had lunch with Sophie Matteau in Montreal.  Those UWP connections are so fun!
Sophie and Jen, reunited in Montreal in 2003
After my three years at the Christian school, I moved to central Minnesota (Becker) and have been teaching second grade here ever since.  I love teaching and am thankful for my job and students.  
Mrs. Sapp and her second graders, 2015/2016
I went on a mission trip with my church to Ukraine for two weeks in July of 2005.  Following that mission trip I went to Germany to spend a week with Anette Glaser Schmidtke!   What a wonderful week!  I even got to bond with her sweet daughter, Anna Siri.  We explored Berlin, took a day trip to Poland, and spent time with Anette's parents (whom I had stayed with over UWP's spring break).  I will always treasure my reunion with Anette!  What a special friend!  What a gift!
Anette and Jen, reunited in Germany in 2005.
 In July of 2007 I met the man of my dreams and we were married ten months later.  Todd likes hearing my UWP stories and he has sat through scrapbook viewings numerous times.  
Todd and Jennifer Sapp, May 3rd,  2008.
You can imagine how thrilled I was the first time Todd and I got to attend an UWP show near us.  But, even better was having Todd meet some of my UWP friends.  The summer of 2014 we took a month long road trip along the west coast of the United States.  We spent Fourth of July weekend with Yasuko Endo Jackson and her adorable family in Bend, Oregon.  That was a refreshing, healing, reflective time for me.  The connection and bond I felt with Yasuko was amazing.  And, my husband and I loved getting to know Yasuko's husband and girls!  The time flew by!    
Yasuko and Jennifer, reunited in Oregon in 2014.
After Oregon, we drove south to California and met up with a whole crew of UWP friends!  Monique Dugars Jones hosted a dinner at her home in Folsom.  Andrea Grover and Robbie Rousseau and Dustin Jay Hollingsworth and their families came to join us.  We swapped stories and laughed and talked for hours!  I loved hearing about Andrea and Robbie's wedding and Monique had quite the story about her time in Paris!  It felt good to be together again.  
Jen, Andrea, Dustin, Robbie, Monique, reunited in CA in 2014.
I'm glad my husband could be part of those two reunions in 2014.  I don't know if it's possible for someone outside Cast C 95-96 to truly comprehend our UWP experience, but Todd is getting close!  Todd even bought me a headband to go with my favorite sweater.  The sweater was made by my host mom in Denmark from our UWP year.  I'm thankful for a supportive husband.  We love to travel together and do new things.  One of my favorite things about UWP was that there was something new pretty much every day.  I strive to keep things fresh and new in my life and I seek out new opportunities and experiences whenever I can.

A matching headband for my beloved sweater!
My husband has two boys, James and Daniel.  James and his wife, Jaimee recently had a little boy named Jax, so that makes us Grandma and Grandpa Sapp!  Crazy!  I also have a very special relationship with each of my nieces and nephews.  I love being Auntie Jen!
My nieces and nephews bring me such JOY!
So, there's a little about what Jennifer Iverson Sapp has been up to these past 20 years!  I'm looking forward to future reunions in the years to come.  My husband and I are planning a trip to Alaska and Yukon in the near future and we definitely hope to see Tanya Sage and Wendy Olkjer Clubb!  


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Graduations, Weddings, and Funerals....oh my!

My 6 year old niece is graduating from Kindergarten!  
My 18 year old nephew is graduating from high school!  
My step-son and his wife are having a baby!  
My former students are graduating and getting married!
I only have 7.5 days of school left before summer break! 
My husband and I have great things planned. 
Life is FULL of exciting events right now!

But, I want it all to slow down.  
I want to breathe deep and savor each thing.  

I just got home from a funeral.
I am full up with emotion.
Sixty two years this couple was married.  
Then she was gone.
I sat directly behind the one left behind.  
It was touching watching him experience the service.
He was so thankful for the years.  
The memories.  
The love.
The pastor spoke eloquently.
My piano playing went smoothly.
God was glorified.
Why do I feel full up with emotion?
62 years still wasn't enough time.  
I want to make the most of every day I have on this earth.
I don't want to waste a moment... 
with my husband, my parents, my loved ones, my friends....
I want to make a difference in the lives of my students.
I want to live life to the fullest and be fully alive.
I want to shine for Jesus.
And savor each moment.
And breathe deep.


Friday, May 13, 2016

My German Homestay with a Professional Violinist

     20 years ago today I was spending a "Career Morning" with my host mom in Paderborn, Germany.  By 8:00 in the morning I was in the music room playing the violin that belonged to my host sister, Eva.  My host mom, Barbara came in at 10:00 to play duets with me.  I will never, ever forget that experience.  We could not talk to each other with words, but we could read the music and both understand the notes and phrasing.  It was powerful!

     Below is an entry I wrote for a writing contest one year later about this experience.  Enjoy:

Staying With a Professional Violinist
By Jennifer Ann Iverson
Written July of 1997

As I patiently waited in line to be given my host family’s name, a low sinking feeling came into my stomach.  This would be home stay #10 in Germany and I had been away from my American home for five months!  Sure life on the road was exciting and sure I had had some neat host families to stay with, but I certainly was exhausted!  It is tough work doing community service projects all day, performing musical shows at night, traveling for hours on a bus, and meeting  a new host family every three days!  I longed to sit down and have something familiar, something that would remind me of home.
As I drew to the front of the line I was handed a card which read, “Barbara Gabrys - a professional violinist!”  I was overjoyed!  How I had missed my dear violin from home.  Perhaps my host mom and I could play together!
When I finally met this exciting host mom/musician, I was thrown aback.  This was the right woman but she spoke NO ENGLISH!  She was from Poland and knew only Polish and German.  I knew English only, but I was determined to communicate with this intriguing person who shared my love of music.
Barbara’s beautiful home was full of pictures of her and her daughter performing on violin together.  I grabbed this opportunity to tell her I too could play.  I flailed my exhausted arms around, pointed my finger and spoke with pleading eyes.  She understood!  Oh hurrah!
Barbara went right to her music room.  I followed behind like a cat awaiting a treat.  Two violins emerged and we played duets together.  We played Telemann, Mozart, Bach, and even a little Gabrys improvisation on some German hymns.  It was amazing!  We could not communicate verbally but music was acting as the international language!  At last, I felt refreshed and revived by the power of music and its bond between peoples.
Host family book entry written by Barbara and translated from German to English by my friend, Anette:

“Dear Jennifer,  It was very refreshing for us to play music with you.  It’s a pity that we couldn’t spend more time together.  The Festival was an experience for us and I hope all people can see you and your message and can practice it.  I wish you all the best for the time with Up With People and afterwards.  Live as you have been on stage with love, happiness, spark, and power.  Lots of love, Barbara and Eva”  May 14th, 1996  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Twenty Year High School Reunion

My Senior Photo (1995)

My Teaching Photo (2015)

Written in June of 2015:  
     I have my twenty year high school class reunion tomorrow. Twenty years. I’m not the same gal I was twenty years ago. I’ve grown in my faith. I’ve developed a broader global perspective. I’m an experienced teacher.  I am happily married. I’ve become much more comfortable with who I am. So, why do I feel nervous to attend my class reunion? 
      I might be nervous because my ten year reunion was a bit awkward. Once we got over the initial shock of seeing the girls pregnant and the guys going bald, it was rather nice having conversations with people I hadn't seen in years. Unfortunately, people stood around in their same little circles with the same cliques. Athletes. Musicians. Smokers. Debaters. Gamers. Beauty queens. Farmers. I remember "breaking into" one of the circles where I didn’t “belong” to talk with a gal who had attended my eighth birthday party. She’d always been nice to me (even if we ran in different crowds). The rest of the circle literally turned their backs to us as we visited. There were additional disappointments and surprises that night that left me feeling disheartened and determined to never attend another class reunion. 
      But, time heals such wounds and here I am all registered and ready for tomorrow night. I’ve got my outfit picked out and I’ve reviewed faces in my yearbook to help me remember names. My husband has agreed to attend with me. There is a dinner and a dance, so we’ll have a fun evening out together. We recently attended his thirty year class reunion and had a wonderful time connecting with people. I’ve warned him that I graduated with four times as many classmates, so it won’t be the same. He’s keeping an open mind. 
      I’m keeping an open mind too. After all, this isn’t about me. My classmates and I have shared experiences and memories. We’re adults now. We contribute to society. I teach kids who are exactly like theirs. I do parent teacher conferences with adults who are just like them. Athletes. Musicians. Smokers. Debaters. Gamers. Beauty queens. Farmers. 
      There are going to be people there tomorrow night who don’t know the Lord. Some were friends of mine once upon a time. That friend from my sixth grade class. That girl who was in orchestra with me. That person who worked on the yearbook with me. That guy who sang in choir with me. That kid who was confirmed the same year as me. That classmate who was friends with the student who committed suicide. I wish I could take time to sit down in a quiet corner with each one and hear their stories. I wish I could share with them the hope and joy I have found in knowing the Lord. He is the answer to life’s hard things. He is good and He is faithful. He cares about every single soul who will be there tomorrow night. My prayer is that my classmates can see Jesus in me. I hope to have a great time at the reunion, but in addition, I am hoping that God uses me to encourage someone and draw someone closer to Him. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

     "This is the best day ever!” Ramona shouts as she jumps through the gigantic hole on the side of her house made by construction workers who are putting a new room on the Quimbys’ home.  I love the enthusiastic way Ramona exclaims that line in the movie, Beezus and Ramona.  I have lots of “best day ever” moments that flash through my own mind…..like the day my husband proposed to me and the day I asked Jesus into my heart and the day I gave my senior recital… and the day I was a rebel in Copenhagen!  Intrigued?  Jennifer Sapp, a rebel?  Yup!  
Twenty years ago I was traveling in the Up With People organization with 150 other students from 26 different countries.  We stayed with host families, did community learning activities and performed a show about peace and understanding among nations.  We traveled in busses and usually stayed in one city for only three or four days before moving on.  Our tour included the United States and Canada for 8 months, Venezuela for 3 weeks, Sweden and Denmark for a month, Germany for a month, and Portugal for a month.  Our year began in July of 1995 and ended in July of 1996.  So, 20 years ago on May 4th, 1996 I was loving every moment of being in Europe.  During lunch breaks I’d take walks to see the sights.  On free days I took tons of photos.  I asked my host families question after question about life in Europe.  I didn’t want to miss a thing!
As a child I loved old, happy, endearing musicals.  One of my favorites was Hans Christian Andersen by MGM Pictures starring Danny Kaye.  Some of my favorite songs from the production included The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen.  As a girl, I imagined myself visiting Copenhagen one day.  When I learned that my cast would be in Denmark for part of our tour, my hopes of getting to Copenhagen rose.  “Wonderful Copenhagen, Wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town!”  

So, when my host family In Slagelse, Denmark offered to drop me off in Copenhagen on the Saturday of our stay I jumped at the chance!  But, it meant I had to tell a lie to the staff.  I had to call in sick… without really being sick.  That was a very hard phone call to make.  I’d never done such a thing.  I knew plenty of people in Up With People who called in sick (and really weren’t) all the time.  For that matter, I knew plenty of people who showed up for a day in Up With People but never lifted a finger to help with anything….they’d go hang out at a park for three hours until all the work was done.  The staff never did anything about those people so I decided I was justified.  Besides, Copenhagen!?!  Seize The Day!  When would I ever have an opportunity like this again?  I was ready to fulfill a dream!
May 4th, 1996 was an overcast, rainy day in Copenhagen, Denmark.  But, to Jennifer Ann Iverson, it was a sunshiny, beautiful, glorious day!  I distinctly remember that the song, “Blue Skies” was in my head the ENTIRE DAY!  I may have even burst into song out loud a few times as I practically skipped along those cobblestone streets.  “Blue skies smiling at me.  Nothing but blue skies do I see.  Never saw the sun shining so bright.  Never saw things going so right….”
My journal from that day tells of the impressive sights I saw.  The Queens Royal Palace with guards in red and a big statue and fountain in front took my breath away.  My heart was racing as I strolled around the famous, colorful street along the harbor.  The Little Mermaid statue was lovely.  Tivoli Park was enchanting.    
All the people I met were very kind.  I asked strangers to take my picture or to help me decipher my map.  One Dane suggested I take a city train from the Little Mermaid Statue to Tivoli Gardens instead of walking that long distance a second time.  I met a jolly train conductor who seemed delighted to help me find the correct train to Tivoli.  He even rode the train and made sure I got off correctly!  Everyone spoke beautiful English and didn’t seem to mind talking to an American tourist at all.  
Other than that short train ride I walked all day.  All.  Day.  I even ate my bag lunch as I walked around.  I was a determined tourist who wanted to see it all.  But, I was also a happy girl on “Holiday” in an enchanting place fulfilling a dream.  I remember buying ice cream for myself at one point in the day and purposefully savoring the moment as I savored the treat.
I’m thankful for that day 20 years ago.  I enjoyed my own company.  I sensed that God gave me that day as a gift.  I felt peaceful and content.  I enjoyed a break from the stresses and drama of the Up With People world.  I felt refreshed by the adventure of it all.  It was a selfish day, a rebellious day, and a day worthy of being in the “best day ever!” category.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

These are a Few of My Favorite Things...

My favorite!
"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.  Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.  Brown paper packages tied up with strings. These are a few of my favorite things!" 

Fifty one years ago the movie version of The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews appeared and the world has never been the same!  I have no idea how many times I've seen the movie.  Maybe twenty times?  Probably more.  The lyrics to the songs are part of my regular vocabulary.  I'm thankful Rodgers and Hammerstein were willing to share their music with the world!  

I love making lists!  I began this blog post at the beginning of 2015 but have been tweaking it all these months and am now ready to share with the world... My Favorite Things!  Enjoy!    


cornflower blue

chocolate (especially Nutella)
cinnamon rolls (with lots of frosting)
fruit (nectarines, cherries, mangos, strawberries, apples, blueberries...)

sprite with grenadine
mocha with mint
mango smoothies

Kinder Chocolate
Milka Chocolate
Ritter Chocolate

Forms of Exercise:

Genres of Books:
Historical Fiction
Inspirational Christian

Children's Book Series:
Betsy-Tacy Books
American Girl Collection
Little House On The Prairie


TV series:                      
Road To Avonlea          
Wind At My Back        
The Waltons                  

Anne of Green Gables
The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band
Saving Sarah Cain

Genres of Music:
Christian Folk
Vocal Jazz
Bluegrass Gospel

J.J. Heller                        
Sara Groves                    
Laura Story                    


The Sound of Music
Music Man
Fiddler On The Roof

In Christ Alone
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus

Things to Collect:
Strawberry Shortcake dolls
violinist figurines

Months of the Year:


Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, Canada
Banff and Jasper, Alberta Canada
Mesa Verde, Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks

Uno Attack!
Disney Trivia

Abraham Lincoln
George Washington
Grover Cleveland

Sports to Watch:
figure skating
anything my nephews/nieces are in

fresh mountain air

yellow roses

Household chores:
washing dishes
doing laundry

Places to hang out:
coffee shop
sitting beside a lake (in the shade)

Women from the Bible:
Mary, the mother of Jesus
The woman who poured her perfume on Jesus' feet
The bleeding woman whom Jesus healed

Bible verses:
Proverbs 3:5-6 "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight."

Romans 8:38-39, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Philippians 4:4-8, "Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."
God bless you!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Reflections on Venezuela

       I spent 19 days in Venezuela when I was 19 years old.  Those 19 days were full of life - bursting with so many different emotions and experiences.  Some of the hardest days of my life were spent there…but also some of the most thrilling and culturally rich.

I traveled to Venezuela with my fellow Up With People cast mates.  There were 150 of us and we represented 26 different countries.  We had been together since July touring Canada and The United States, but for many of us this was our first time off the North American continent.  Our goal was to promote peace and understanding among nations through our Broadway-style show, our community service, and our host family experiences.  It had been 13 years since a cast had toured Venezuela.  We were known as Viva La Gente! (Live the People!).  Our stay in March of 1996 included five allocations:  Valencia (11th -16th), Barquisimeto (16th - 19th), Caracas (19th - 24th), Cuidad Bolivar (24th - 27th), and Porto Ordaz (27th - 30th).

       Bienvenidos!  Our adventures began in a very unique fashion.  We flew from Florida in two huge Venezuelan military cargo planes.  We sat side by side along the frame of the plane in orange net-like chairs.  Our luggage was put in big strapped-together piles beside us.  Everyone wore ear plugs on this noisy, crowded six hour flight.  Upon arrival in the country, we were put onto three big busses that drove 80 miles per hour while blasting Venezuelan dance music (Merengue) to our first city, Valencia.
       I had the sweetest host family which included Esperanza (the mom), Jorge (the 15 year old brother), and two other brothers ages 13 and 17.  Jorge spoke excellent English, but Esperanza did not.  I had taken two years of Spanish class in high school so I understood a few things, but I was shy to try to speak.  Esperanza constantly asked me if I was “contento” and if all was “sufficiento.”  She told me I was “groggy” in the mornings and she reminded me each day to wear my “nametag!”  Esperanza made the most delicious fruit juices I have ever tasted in my life!  Their home was lovely with a wavy tin roof and decorative bars across the windows (but no glass).

I climbed a small mountain (Cerro Casupo) on my first full day in Venezuela.  Jorge carried his Spanish/English dictionary along on our hike.  He was very passionate about pronouncing his English words correctly.  It was a hot, dry day with March being part of Venezuela’s dry season.  Jorge told me that sometimes cows die during the dry season, but that during the rainy season river and lakes overflow.

        At the show facility (La Casa Don Bosco) I had my first interaction with street children.  There was a mob of shouting children around a few of us.  We were all smiles and nods.  We said, “si! si!” to the children.  Jorge later told us the children had been swearing at us to make fun of us.  I was told to be careful of my valuables because these street children were known to steal.  Sad.  Later, when selling show merchandise at the intermission of our show there were people stealing merchandise and money from me.  It was scary being surrounded by a mob of people who knew I was wearing a money belt jammed full of bolivars (dollars).  I felt very trapped and claustrophobic!   
Drivers in Venezuela were another thing to be wary of!  In addition to driving very fast, they also change lanes quickly - sometimes four lanes at a time!  Sometimes cars had to throw on their breaks to avoid hitting someone changing lanes who didn’t calculate very well.  When passing someone on the freeway, they honk their horn.  I felt like it was a miracle to get anywhere safely!

During my time in Venezuela I ate lots of corn, rice, meat, and arrapas.  An arrapa is flatbread made from ground maize or cooked flour.  Arrapas were usually cut in half and some kind of meat or cheese was put inside.  They were very filling.  In Venezuela, I also had soup the color of egg yolks that tasted like corn and tuna the color of beef.  I had spaghetti noodles with salsa on top and once I had lasagna. I had mashed potatoes, chicken, and carrots & tomato salad for one meal.  Apple cake was served for dessert.  I drank iced tea, fruit juice, a chocolate drink, guava juice, milk, and lots of bottled water!  One morning my host mom gave me a strawberry shake to drink.  She pointed to it and said, “weight-less!”  I think it was a Slim-Fast drink. 

Our first show in Venezuela was unbelievable!  It was amazing!  I think I now have an inkling what it might have been like to be one of The Beatles.  Such enthusiasm, such generosity, such emotion, such screaming!  We even had to have security people at each end of the stage.  The audience would scream and cheer whenever anyone came on stage and then applaud wildly after every song.  If they knew a song or could catch on to a chorus, they belted out the words with such vigor.  The entire show was in Spanish and we concluded with two Venezuelan songs.  The audience sang along wholeheartedly.  They clasped hands and swayed with their arms up in the air.  It was beautiful.  Talk about chills.  We were all beaming and squeezing each others’ hands too.  We ended up doing two encores!  The audience even knew our theme song, “Viva La Gente” and an old original classic from the beginning of Up With People (in 1965) called, “What Color Is God’s Skin?”  I know I was not the only one with tears streaming down my face listening to the audience sing, “De Que Color Es La Piel De Dios….”

Our second show didn’t run quite so smoothly.  The power kept going out.  There were about 20 Venezuelan military men watching the show and controlling the crowd (we had learned from our first show that we’d need help).  Standing on stage with all the uniformed men around us reminded me of the scene from The Sound of Music when the Von Traps are performing at the Vienna Music Festival before their big escape over the mountains.  

My impression was that most Venezuelans love to party!  In fact, parties often last until three or four in the morning.  I attended a couple parties with my host families, but I always left at midnight.  In Valencia I went to a Dance Club called “Nuvo.”  They had a dress code, so everyone was dressed nicely.  There was fancy lighting and special effects and at one point confetti came down from the ceiling.  I attended a party in Barquisimeto that was held at the home of my host sister’s friend.  Five musicians wearing sombreros arrived and played their trumpets, guitars, and fiddles.  It was a live “Mariachi Band” serenading the birthday girl.  That was quite the thrilling cultural experience.
    I really enjoyed my Valencia host family.  At one point Jorge asked me who my favorite host family so far in Up With People had been.  As I was describing a family from Barrie, Ontario, I mentioned that we had played Uno together.  A day or two later Jorge and his family sat down at the table with the Uno cards and asked me to play.  So sweet!  There was Spanish music playing and we laughed a lot (mostly making fun of my Spanish).  Good memory.

When it was time to leave Valencia all the host families gathered at the drop off sight where the busses were.  Mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents were all there and many of them were crying and shouting their last goodbyes.  People got right up near the windows of our busses and looked in.  Once the busses started leaving the people did a clapping cheer that got louder and louder.  Then many of them got in their cars and followed behind us, honking their horns and waving madly.  There were still cars following us 15 minutes after we departed!
       In Barquisimeto, my roommate and I had a nice host mom and two host sisters.  Lulu was a university student studying to be a preschool teacher.  She told me that on average, it takes about 6 years to get a degree because there are so many strikes at the university!  Leibas was the host sister that took us to the party with the Mariachi band.  This host family taught us the traditional way to greet one another - with a kiss on the cheek.  Everyone kisses everyone except a guy and a guy never kiss each other!  Their home was drastically different from the Valencia home.  There was nothing fancy about it.  The walls were almost completely bare and some of the rooms were separated by just a curtain.  Their extremely small kitchen had no door and one could walk right out into their lush, green garden just inches from their stove.  There were cockroaches in the shower and cement floors everywhere.  

      Our Barquisimeto host family had some terrible news while we were staying with them.  Their niece died in a car accident.  It was such a sad time.  It happened on a “free day” when there were no Up With People activities and we were supposed to spend the day with our host families.  My roommate and I just stayed in our room and let them grieve.  It was a long day.  

On the day we had to leave Barquisimeto our host family wanted to give us something.  So, Leibas walked over to the wall in the main entryway and took two clay decorative pieces down from their wall and gave one to me and one to my roommate.  Then the wall was bare.  We were so moved, we were speechless.  I keep that treasure in my curio cabinet and look at it often and remember.

      When I look back on my time in Barquisimeto, I remember all the emotions.  I also remember one more emotion…fear.  At the birthday party that Leibas took us to there were some very intoxicated young men there.  One kept wanting to kiss me.  It started out innocently enough.  Five of us went for a walk to buy ice for the party.  One young man asked to hold my hand and I was flattered, so I agreed.  I was 19 years old and had never held a boy’s hand, never gone on a date, never had a boy really notice me.  It was fun to be noticed.  Back at the house the drinking began.  I’d never been to a party with alcohol.  The young man who liked me got very drunk.  A group of us were dancing in a circle and he came up and wanted to dance close with me.  He tried to kiss me twice.  I was so scared!  I couldn’t seem to get away from him.  I went to the kitchen, I went to the patio, I paced the room, I clung to my roommate.  I wanted to lock myself in the bathroom just to get away.  Eventually we convinced Leibas that we needed to go home, so she got us a taxi and we made it home safely.  I wish I had never had that experience.  I’m so thankful nothing happened to me that night.  I still remember my fear.  I replayed that night in my head over and over in the days ahead.  That was not wise.

Our third stay in Venezuela was in Caracas, the capital city.  I came into this noisy, dirty city full of fear and I basically had a nervous breakdown.  At the meeting where we usually meet our host families, the team informed us that most of us were hosted alone and that most of us would have to use the Metro to get to our host family’s house.  I was one of them.  They explained this right after telling us things like, “Never be alone!  Never wear jewelry or Nike shoes!  Blond girls watch out because these Venezuelan men can’t be trusted!”  I lost it.  I cried hysterically and could not be consoled.  It’s all a big blur, but eventually they gave me a new host family where I was hosted with four roommates (including a staff member).  Our host mom (Yoselyn) and two host sisters were there to bring us home.  It took two hours using the Metro system to get us to their penthouse apartment.  They lived on the top floor of a twelve story building.  They had linoleum floors and glass windows.  Out on the terrace one could look over all of Caracas.  I slept on the floor, but I was just so thankful to feel safe.

       Caracas is a big city with lots of poverty.  I had never seen anything like it.  There was a huge hill that had shack after shack piled close together.  Many of these shacks were made of cardboard.  Some had tin roofs.  It reminded me of Mesa Verde National Park.
  While in Caracas my roommates and I had quite a unique experience.  We got to appear on National Television in a comedy program called, “Caracas Radial.”  From what I understand, it is a program similar to America’s “Saturday Night Live” with comedic sketches and repeat characters.  Before our appearance we had to get our makeup and hair done.  I got bright red lipstick and my hair was huge!  The sketch was about an annoying hair dresser who was supposed to give us each a hair cut and massage.  We each had to jump up and slap him on the cheek.  The show was advertised all over the place and they made a big deal of having guests from “Viva La Gente” on the show.  We taped the sketch on a Friday and it appeared on TV the following Monday.  About a week later, one of my roommates was approached by someone in the mall who asked her if she was from “Viva La Gente.”  She had seen “Caracas Radial” and had recognized her.  We were famous!  But, it was such a weird experience!
     Our Up with People show facility in Caracas was amazing.  It could hold 20,000 people.  Michael Jackson had performed there recently.  There were cameras everywhere as we performed.  They aired our show on Venezuelan national television.  The audience members ran down to the front of the stage and stood there for the entire two hour show!  Again, we felt like rock stars!

        Each of my host families wrote a message to me in my host family book.  My Spanish-speaking friend, Lili translated them into English for me.  I was touched by the words written by my Caracas host family.  They wrote, "Dear Jennifer, the moment has come to say goodbye!  For some people to meet somebody for such a short period can't represent to be sad to say goodbye, but in such a short time we've been able to discover what a wonderful person you are and you transmit a lot of peace and you are very sweet.  God bless you and protect you!  Come back whenever you want.  I tell you that you are a very sweet girl.  We will remember you forever."

Despite these kind words from my Caracas host family, I was relieved when it was time to move on to a new city….a smaller city.  We went to Cuidad Bolivar and the majority of us stayed on a military base.  We slept in a huge room full of bunk beds and we took showers with the cockroaches.  But, we enjoyed sitting around a fire each night and there were mango trees nearby that were perfect for picking.  One of my favorite memories from Venezuela was of eating fresh mangos right from the tree.  So sweet and delicious!

      In Cuidad Bolivar our show facility was on a baseball field!  We performed on the outfield and the audience sat in the fenced in stands.  They were far away and we couldn’t even see them as we performed.  But, during he Venezuelan songs we could see them swaying with their lighters.  We heard them singing too - but the sound was delayed.

Cuidad Bolivar went by fast and we were soon on to our last city, Porto Ordaz.  My roommate and I had a wonderful host family.  Our host dad, Jose spoke English very well.  He worked at Banco Del Orinoco, the bank that sponsored our Up With People tour.  His wife Maria was very sweet and smiley.  They had a three year old daughter named Nathaly who was absolutely delightful!  She acted just like a typical three year old…only everything was in Spanish!  She played with my slippers and giggled when I let her try them on.  She babbled happily.  When her mom told her it was time for bed, she plopped her head down on her mommy’s lap and protested.  We did a lot of laughing in Porto Ordaz.

       This family had enough money for nice clothes and a nice car, but I was surprised by the starkness of their home.  We ate Arapas on plastic chairs in their living room with concrete bare walls.  Nathaly’s toys were strewn across the concrete floors and it was obvious this mostly-empty room was where a lot of life was lived.  I still wonder why it wasn’t more “homey.”
       Jose took my roommate and me to Cachamay Park on the Orinoco River.  It was lush and green with lots of palm trees.  I saw an iguana while we were there.  I found Venezuela to be quite beautiful with its mountains and hills and the views of the Caribbean Sea.

I’m really glad I got to visit Venezuela.  My husband and I are planning a trip to Puerto Rico in the near future. I wonder if I will see any similarities.  I’m thankful to be 20 years older (and wiser) and I’m glad I get to explore with my husband.  I look back on Venezuela and I remember the emotions I felt as a 19 year old.  So many emotions.  But, mostly I remember the kind people….the host family who played Uno with me, the little host sister who tried on my slippers, the host mom who made arapas for us even while grieving, the penthouse family willing to take a fifth guest who had tears of fear running down her face, the host sister who gave me the clay treasure from her wall, the audience members who were so enthusiastic….  How blessed am I to have had these experiences!  I’m thankful.