Journey East 2018 departs for China

Students from Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, who were part of the Journey East program, prepare for departure to China in 2018.

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TOWNSHEND — With money running out for the Sino-American cultural arts exchange program known as Journey East, Leland & Gray Middle and High School Principal Bob Thibault presented two options: the West River Education District could bring someone on for a short-term basis to explore sustainability, or cut the program.

“We are estimating that in order to move forward that we’re really looking at a two-year commitment from the board and that would be for school years 2023 and 2024,” he said at the WRED board meeting held remotely on June 7. “The trip is happening next year. There’s money for that, and then the following year we would have funds to do the hosting component as well.”

The subject is anticipated to come up in budget talks later in the year. Thibault said he expects to need a salary and benefits package for about $100,000 for two years, with an additional $100,000 to help offset the cost of the trip in 2024.

About two years ago, Thibault and Program Director Jesse Riemenschneider came to the WRED board to sound the alarm about funding challenges.

“The short version is that there was money coming out of the Freeman Foundation to help offset the costs that the students paid to go on the trip and a bunch of other things as well,” Thibault said. “But as that money went away, we went into what I call phase two, where we tried to solicit tuition students from China to come to Leland & Gray and pay tuition, and that helped counterbalance things out for a little bit. But as the scene for enrollments of Chinese students has become more competitive, us being a public school, we have the ability to host them for one year. Private schools have the ability to host for longer, depending on what type of visas they have.”

Tom Connor, who helped start the program, said groups of between about 16 and 29 local students have traveled to China at different times through the program. He estimated that local families hosted more than 200 Chinese and Mongolian students and teachers over the course of 20 years.

“They become very visible in the community and I think that’s a very important piece,” he said, referring to the exchange students and teachers who come to the West River Valley. “In the process of preparing our kids to go to China for a month, I set up evening sessions, basically an educational component of the parents of the kids who are going to be part of the program.”

Board member Howie Ires, whose children participated in Journey East, said the school has “never offered a program that has the impact on kids that this program has had on our community.” He called it “the singular most unique thing about our school that puts it on the map.”

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“I think that I understand that we need to add another person to deal with the fundraising, the promotion that’s required,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of money coming into the educational system. We’re in a cycle of increasing spending coming out of this pandemic and I think if we are willing to invest in putting a person on to solicit this money and promote this program, it’s well worth it.”

Jenny Connor, who ran the program with her husband Tom, said Asian people are being targeted with hate now.

“I think we have something in Journey East that other schools should be wanting to do now especially in Vermont, where kids don’t have a lot of access to other cultures,” she said.

Board member Emily Long, who also serves as a state representative for the Windham-5 district, agreed and called now the time to expand on the program. She suggested reaching out to Vermont’s congressional delegation for help.

Patti Dickson, whose daughter participated in the program, urged the board to make the hire. Board Chairman Al Claussen anticipates another discussion in August or September when more details become available.

Two of Claussen’s children have gone through the program and one is going next year.

“The ability to have that worldview, you just can’t replace,” Claussen said. “The anti-Asian sentiment in this country is just crazy and we need to do anything we can to show that’s not OK.”


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