Bruce Degler wondered what it would be like to combine the energy, curiosity and excitement possessed by teenagers with the need to create international understanding.
He found his answer by taking Utah teenagers to Russia to participate in service projects while they lived with families for a month. He plans to continue the project, called Russia-Utah Friendship, again next summer.The high school and college-age youths worked in orphanages and in centers and day-care programs for adults with disabilities in the city of Kazan, east of Moscow. The host families had teenagers of their own, who joined in the service projects.
Degler, a school psychologist for Alpine School District, hopes to bring the Russian youths back next year, so that the project begins with all the teens in Russia performing community service and ends with projects in Utah. Eventually, he hopes to take Russian and American students to build schools in Bolivia.
Although the program has thus far involved only Utahns, Degler hopes that will expand, too.
For Juliesue Westwood, an adult who traveled with the teenagers, the annual journey has far-reaching value.
"We have a whole, untapped community resource in our youth," she said. "And the smaller the world becomes, the more necessary it is to keep standing shoulder to shoulder."
Most of the teenagers had become friends by the time they made their trip to Russia, said Sara Keller, 17, a senior at Orem High School. Many of them participated in group fund-raising efforts to come up with the $1,700 cost. The teenagers also did community service projects in Utah before going, and they found sponsors to help defray their costs.
One of their at-home service projects involved collecting items to distribute in orphanages and care centers.
"It made me realize that every person is the same around the world - everyone's heart is the same," Keller said.
The teens from both countries taught each other about customs and culture. They went sightseeing and taught each other songs.
And they had a hard time saying goodbye. Keller's host family didn't know any English. Unlike most of the students who went, though, she has been studying Russian in high school and through classes at the Utah Valley State College. Communication, she said, was not a problem.
In most of the families, at least one person could act as interpreter when they talked.
And talk is a big deal in Russia. Keller said she treasures the memory of tea time there. The entire family sat around the dinner table, sharing events of the day. "It was a very relaxing time, and I wanted to have tea time. We could openly share things then," she said.
Degler and Westwood suspect the students will find another benefit: appreciation of the bounty in the United States. Food and other retail items are expensive and sometimes in short supply in Russia.
They also learned about diplomacy. While Degler described the Russian people as "real open to the outside world," they found major cultural differences and distrusts that had to be "peeled away in layers. . . . For instance, you have to do things with the less disabled to get to the really disabled. You have to build trust."
"In Russia, there is an initial real hesitation. What is it you're here for? If it's from your heart, something clicks. Then there's tremendous openness. I had the feeling for the time I was there that I was family," Degler said.
The final lesson may be one in patience, according to Westwood. Conversations take time. Getting business done takes time. Just eating dinner takes time. But the bonds that are forged in the seemingly slow process are durable, she said.
To find out more, call Degler at 221-8270.