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H.O.P.E. Youth Take on the Big Apple

By Katherine Scoggins

H.O.P.E.  (Help Our Potential Evolve) was founded in 2008 by Stella Robinette. The group’s mission 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 is their annual trip.

It began last year when the youth voted on where they wanted to go on their trip—most often it is Washington D.C. or New York City—and then the fundraising began in earnest. The group decided on NYC. “One of the first steps the young people take toward their trip is Googling the location,” says 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. 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 become a part of their 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 a disability,” 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. Libby couldn’t swim. She was terrified of the water, in fact. Abriana Batman, an 11 year old member of H.O.P.E., decided she was going to help Libby overcome her fear and learn to swim. As luck would have it, there was a pool at the hotel where they were staying.  Robinette and 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 education/P.E. 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, NY, 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 an experience for Libby, too, being a part of a majority for probably the first time in her life.

Tuesday morning came early for the group: 2:00 a.m. to be exact. They were up, dressed, and aboard the vans for the trip 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. “They were pretty loud and there were all these girls screaming,” says Abriana, by then fully awake.

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, did some shopping, people-watched, and listened to a drum circle.

“On Wednesday we got to sleep in,” says Abriana, “and that afternoon we went to a mall and got more shopping done. After mostly window-shopping in Manhattan, Harlem and the mall were a nice surprise. Manhattan is expensive!”

The vans were loaded the next morning; the younger group came home and the high school students went on to D.C. for a few hours. They toured “the monuments” and the Holocaust Museum before heading back to Kingsport.

Once home, they weary travelers were reminded of one more activity: a 500- word essay on the trip from each of the participants. Here are some of their observations:

“Lots of really early mornings.”

“GPS’s don’t always work.”

“Manhattan is expensive!”

“The Center for Discovery was amazing!!”

“The trip wasn’t just fun—it was very educational and inspirational.”

Khyra Gambrell, 1st Place and Emily Spencer, 2nd Place

“One of the last things Libby said to us as we were leaving was that she was going to swim. She was so confident and had come such a long way throughout the week, that she probably will take those first few strokes very soon.”

Abriana Batman and Stella Robinette.

And one final note: “Thanks to everyone who attended our fundraisers and gave money to make this trip possible. THANK YOU!!!!!” The staff and young people of H.O.P.E.

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