By Sandra Mathers
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
July 16, 2000
- The prize was the trip of a lifetime -- a chance to experience
an exotic culture half a world away.
For three Orlando teenagers, an all-expense-paid trip to Africa
was an eye-opening journey to a continent of raw and powerful images,
where poverty and plenty go hand-in-hand and big game animals roam
Ronterryeous Stewart, 13, Laura St. Fleur, 15, and Irene Monroe,
16, members of the Pine Hills Boys and Girls Club, won seats on
a plane to Africa with 17 Hillsborough County club members -- and
Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks as their host.
In late June and early July, they spent 10 days touring parts of
the continent they had studied for seven months and reported on
in front of a panel of judges.
But nothing in the pages of a book could have prepared them for
a continent far larger and even more diverse than their own. Or
what they would see on a tour of South Africa and the neighboring
kingdom of Swaziland.
It was the abject poverty that grabbed them first. The wildlife
was a close second.
"When we first got there, we saw a shanty village and it made
me sad," said Irene, a student at Evans High School. "I
could never complain about the way I live because they pick up whatever
they can" to build a home.
She didn't expect that. None of them did. Irene expected to see
naked natives "like the bush people" straight from the
pages of National Geographic magazine.""It made me see
things much differently. It made me see my problems were very little,"
Irene said. "It really touched me."
Ronterryeous, a student at Meadowbrook Middle School, was more
succinct: "There are others who have way less than we have."
To ease his charges' journey into the unknown, Brooks, who paid
$250,000 out-of-pocket for the adventure, pulled out all the stops.
He provided the youngsters with 19 adult chaperones, six security
guards, a change of clothes for every day of the trip, a personalized
suitcase, a safari hat, a backpack filled with a 35mm camera, binoculars,
a wristwatch, batteries -- and $500 in spending money.
"They provided everything, really," said Ronterryeous.
"All we had to bring was socks and underwear."
And a mind ready to be opened.
"It helped us experience places other than America and have
a broader mind," said Laura, an Apopka High School student.
"How we should appreciate the way we live."
The philosophy behind the "Brooks Bunch" educational
travel program is simple: Keep your grades up, stay out of trouble
and regularly attend a study program that rewards you with a trip
to the destination you're studying.
For the past four years, Brooks has played tour guide to disadvantaged
Tampa kids, first visiting Florida cities and, last year, Washington,
D.C. This year's trip is the first to include teens from Orlando.
The trip to Africa was different. Passports and inoculations are
required. Travel time is lengthy, the food different and home far
away. Fourteen hours in the air is tough on veteran travelers. How
would two of the Orlando teens, who had never flown, fare?
"My grandmother told me not to think about it and to pray
before I got on" the plane, Ronterryeous said.
"I was scared," admitted Irene. "I didn't know what
it would be like after we got in" the plane.
But it isn't the plane trip they talk about now.
It's Africa. A place without Burger King or radio stations that
play American rock music. "I couldn't even plug in my CD player,"
A place where wild animals of every stripe are much, much closer
than on the Discovery Channel, and restaurant menus feature ostrich,
crocodile and impala.
"The nastiest thing I had was warthog," he said, with
a grimace. "It tasted like liver."
A place where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean off a rocky
shore at the tip of Cape Point in South Africa.
And a place where poverty amid plenty smacks you in the face.
Human feces line the ditches of some towns and tin-roofed shanties
cluster as far as the eye can see.
At first, Ronterryeous thought all of Africa was "really poor,
but they have nice cities and malls."
If the shantytowns depressed the travelers, the safari on a private
game preserve in Hoedspruit thrilled them. Their quarters were modern,
but their Land Rover trip into the bush was a close encounter with
the wild kind.
"We saw the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot,"
said Ronterryeous, who reeled off lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros
and water buffalo.
They also saw a Swaziland high school, whose students are often
22 years old because they have to work to pay their way through
school. They also have to walk eight to 10 miles a day to get there
-- an eye opener for youngsters who pay nothing for an education
and get a free bus ride if they live more than two miles from school.
The kids sopped up African trivia like sponges. So did Brooks,
also a first-time visitor to Africa.
"The trip really shocked me," Brooks said. "I underestimated
it. It got better and better. Africa has more to offer than poverty
He says he wants to sample it again -- maybe in annual Brooks Bunch
trips. He's considering it.
And he isn't alone. Ronterryeous, Laura and Irene also want to
go back, to Egypt, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
"When I grow up, I'll probably go back," said Ronterryeous.
"I want to go to Egypt and Kenya."