Benjamin Grey
Benjamin Grey
Seeing history come to life right before his eyes. That is what seventh grade student Ben Gray will be doing this summer when he spends 21 days as a student ambassador as part of the People to People Ambassador Program.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the non-profit organization, People to People International (PTPI).

He formed it "to promote peace through face-to-face interaction by ordinary citizens around the world."

PTPI has a long history of presidential support, with nine U.S. presidents serving as honorary chairmen.

"Student ambassadors represent their school, community, state and country while traveling abroad. Students are immersed in foreign cultures and gain access to special activities and learning opportunities that can help them grow as both individuals and global citizens," its website states (www.peopletopeople.com).

This past fall, Ben received a letter of invitation to become an ambassador and travel to France, Greece and Italy, including the Vatican. He and his parents, Heather and Paul Gray, attended an informational meeting at UW-La Crosse gathering more details about the program.

"I thought this program sounded really exciting, because I like history and now I'll get to see what is written in the history books; I'll be where a lot of history has taken place," Ben explained with a big smile.

Along with his application, Ben's next step was to get three letters of recommendation - two from teachers and one from a member of the public.

After sending those in, he made it to the next step - a personal interview with two People to People staff members. The week of Thanksgiving, he received the phone call that he had been waiting for - he was accepted into the program!

"I feel it is quite an honor for Ben to be chosen," said his mom, Heather, "from getting the letters of recommendation to the interview. It was quite an experience for him at just 13 years of age.

"He is very excited about the trip. He's always been curious and able to get along well with people, so I know he'll learn a lot and have a great experience."

Since his notification, he has been preparing for his trip. He and his parents attend meetings every other month where he has been getting to know the six other kids in the group that he'll be traveling with, as well as learning about the People to People Student Ambassador program.

Ben is the only student from Houston County; the others are from western Wisconsin. These kids and their parents will also complete a service project together before the kids go on their trip.

Ben has also has been studying the culture, customs, geography, religions and history of the countries he'll be visiting. He also has to take certification tests regarding travel safety, hotel behavior, packing tips, proper attire and behavior.

His small group from the Coulee Region will meet up with other kids from across the United States and travel as one large group to Europe.

While in Europe, their large group will complete a service project of some sort. They have not yet been told what it is or where it will take place.

They will be visiting major historical sites in these countries such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre Museum, Acropolis, Parthenon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the ruins of Pompeii to name a few.

While in Italy, they will also experience a gondola tour in Venice, rappel down a castle wall and visit Naples, Florence and Rome. They will also stay with host families experiencing traditional family life.

He will have some opportunities that the average European traveler would not generally have access to, because of the reputation and contacts that the People to People program has.

For example, in past travels, students have been able to meet the U.S. ambassadors in the foreign countries as well as foreign leaders or take exclusive behind the scenes tours.

"I'm really excited, but just a little bit nervous, too," Ben said. "I've read about history and seen pictures of it in books; now I'll have the chance to actually be there and see it!

"I'm really interested in World War II history and my great-grandpa was in World War II and went through France, so I'm really excited about visiting a World War II cemetery while we are there. It's going to be really neat to actually see all these things!"

A trip like this will be an experience of a lifetime as he travels to foreign lands and makes new friends from all over the United States.

He will be representing the Spring Grove community as he travels. He has to make a scrapbook of his family and hometown that he will be sharing with other students as well as his host family.

A trip like this also is expensive. Ben has been raising money by helping family members with lawn work and other odd jobs. He has also spoken with several local organizations such as the Lions Club, Commercial Club, American Legion and Spring Grove Communications, asking for a donation toward his trip. In return, he would assist them with different events that they host.

He still has money to raise. If anyone in the community is interested in helping Ben with his trip, they can contact him and his family at (507) 498-4729.