The mission of H.O.P.E. (Help Our Potential Evolve) is to identify and train young leaders, ages 14 to 18, and help them develop skills for their future careers while also promoting community service. The most popular activity for group members is the annual trip - most often to Washington D.C. or New York City.
The planning started last year when the youth voted on where they wanted to go and the fundraising began in earnest. The planned destination: NYC.
"One of the first steps the young people take toward their trip is Googling the location," said Stella Robinette, founder and CEO of H.O.P.E. "They need to see what is there to see, so we can plan the trip as efficiently as possible."
Because of the massive exposure Manhattan receives through television, movies and other forms of media, it was quickly identified as a "must see." Then, of course, there were the usual tourist attractions.
On July 20, at 4:30 a.m., 17 young people and chaperones boarded two vans for the 14-hour trip to New York. Now, this probably sounds like the beginning of a typical trip, taken by a typical group of young people, but you would be mistaken. This was no ordinary trip: they had a serious mission. Earlier in the year, Libby had joined the group. She is older - and she is autistic.
"This was an opportunity for these young people to experience first-hand the challenges of someone with different abilities," explains Robinette. "Over time, the young people became more and more comfortable with Libby - and she became more comfortable with us. Instead of focusing on what she could not do, the youth realized that she could do almost everything they could do, with maybe just a small change or 'tweak' here and there."
Well, almost everything.
When the trip started, Libby couldn't swim. She was terrified of the water, in fact. Abriana Batman, a 12-year-old member of H.O.P.E., decided she was going to help Libby overcome her fear and help her learn to swim. As luck would have it, there was a pool at the hotel where they were staying. Robinette helped as Abriana put in hours of patient encouragement over the next few days getting Libby comfortable with the water, teaching her how to hold her breath, and showing her the basic strokes.
Adding an educational and physical education component to a trip to New York City might seem strange to some. But what came next was even more amazing.
One of the places Googled by the young people in preparation for the trip was the Center for Discovery, which provides care and treatment of children, youth and adults with disabilities, medical complexities and autism. Located in Hurleyville, N.Y., the center is 1,100 acres of land which includes three main campuses, barns containing 800 laying hens, acres of organic gardens, greenhouses, a bakery, a gym, tennis and basketball courts, housing and schools.
On their first day, the youth toured the grounds, met some of the residents, and watched as young people and adults, all "differently abled," worked in the gardens, helped out in the dining rooms, and went about their daily lives.
"Sometimes it just takes a little longer, but there's little difference between most of us in the long run," says Robinette. And it was quite an experience for Libby, too, being a part of a majority for probably the first time in her life.
Following that adventure, the group was up before the chickens - at 2 a.m., in fact - and on the road into Manhattan to see the Today Show. Not only did they see the studio, they were right beside the bandstand for that morning's concert by 5 Seconds of Summer. Afterwards, the group walked through Times Square and Manhattan to the dock where the Circle Cruise ship was waiting for their 2-hour cruise. They saw the Statue of Liberty, Yankee Stadium, the Empire State Building, and the 911 Ground Zero Memorial. Later that afternoon, they toured Harlem, shopped and listened to a drum circle.
"Manhattan was, by far, the busiest place I have ever been. The people there walked so fast, and if I accidently bumped into them, they didn't even flinch. It was just that normal to them," wrote Khyra Gambrell, in her winning essay about the trip. "... Harlem was incredible! Everywhere I turned, I could feel the culture. To make things even better, a drum circle was taking place in the middle of the town as we drove up."
The vans were loaded the next morning. The younger group came straight home, while the high school students got the opportunity to stop in Washington D.C. for a few hours. They toured "the monuments" and the Holocaust Museum before heading back to Kingsport.
Once home, the weary travelers were reminded of one more activity: a 500- word essay about the trip.
The staff and young people of H.O.P.E. shared one final note: "Thanks to everyone who attended our fundraisers and gave money to make this trip possible. THANK YOU!"