Brooks' Bunch travelers found a collection of clothes and gear waiting for them upon their arrival at the hotel Monday evening
When Derrick Brooks first started his community program, early in his first decade as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, it was a simple ticket incentive plan to reward local students for their hard work and good behavior. At the time he never dreamed he would be taking several dozen young men and women on a life-changing, 10-day tour of Africa.
Well, that trip was five years ago. Amazingly, Brooks is headed back to Africa with another group of future leaders, 33 teenage boys and girls who have been working up to this moment since September. On Monday evening, they gathered at a hotel near Tampa International Airport, and very early Tuesday morning they'll be taking off across the Pacific.
There is a lot to see, and very much to learn.
"I'm very excited," said Sierra Bryan, one of the students who finished the year-long curriculum and earned a spot on the trip. "I've been looking forward to this for months; I've pretty much been excited since we started the Brooks' Bunch program."
Bryan and her 32 fellow student travelers will be joined on the trip by Brooks, a handful of trip coordinators, 11 additional adult chaperones, a photographer and a videographer. Virtually the entire group was in the hotel's lobby early Monday evening, chatting excitedly and posing for pictures.
There was a definite sense of adventure in the air.
"I think I'll learn a lot about different places, about people who are so different from us, people who live so far away," said Nick Huetteman, another young traveler. "I'll see how they live compared to us."
The first thing Bryan, Huetteman and the rest did upon arriving at the hotel at 5:00 p.m. was get their luggage set. Each student brought a single piece of luggage with some clothing staples, such as jeans and khakis. However, the contents of those bags were unloaded and mixed with a collection of clothes provided by Brooks, then repacked in a Brooks' Bunch bag. Each student will carry one matching piece of luggage and one backpack. Brooks and his sponsors have made sure all of the kids' needs would be met during the trip.
"I have a friend who has been on a trip with Derrick before," said Bryan. "He said we would have lots of fun and wouldn't have to worry about anything."
Monday evening's schedule also included a dinner for the whole traveling party, but room call was at 8:00 a.m. That early curfew is not surprising, given that the buses to the airport will be pulling out of the hotel parking lot at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The flight to Johannesburg, through Atlanta, will leave from TIA at 6:30 a.m.
The assembled travels were understandably excited about the journey that was about to begin.
"I want to learn about all the animals, and I want to find out what's going on with the people who live there, and how it's different from what we have here in the United States," said Bryan. "I heard we were going to Nelson Mandela's jail cell, and I'm very excited to go there. They said that he was a very strong person, and we learned about him during our classes. I want to visit his jail cell and see what he had to go through in order to be who he is now."
Huetteman said that each student had to complete a lengthy project at the end of the Brooks' Bunch curriculum, in which they focused on a specific problem affecting Africa and offered a solution. The students have learned much about the continent's turbulent history and the issues that still affect its peoples.
"We've been talking about how Apartheid happened, and how there are cities there where thousands of people don't even have homes," said Huetteman. "They're living in sheds. We're going to go there and see what that's actually like, see how they live."
The Brooks' Bunch program has actually sponsored many large-scale trips, visiting such places as New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, the American West and a variety of college campuses. The first Africa trip, in 2000, was its biggest undertaking and this year's return should be equally ambitious. All are undertaken for the same purpose: To help make leaders out of today's young men and women.
"With all the kids who come through the program, our hope is that they are motivated in some way by the things we see and the experiences we have," said Brooks. "We want them to see what is out there, so that they can decide what they want to do with their lives. It's a blessing to have this opportunity to touch their lives in some way."
The students, while obviously filled with nervous energy, are also approaching the trip seriously. Huetteman said it was important to represent America well and behave responsibly while away from their parents for almost two weeks. Poor behavior can get a traveler sent home early, though no one expects that to happen with any of this group's 33 young men and women. Rather, all are eager to complete the trip and grow as much as possible.
"I think I'll have more potential to be a leader after this trip," said Bryan. "I think this will be a great learning experience and it will help me understand not to take for granted what I have here."