It’s difficult for anyone to be “out of their element,” in a new culture with new customs, language and food.
But try being only 12 or 13 and doing it.
However, it’s just what several local middle school students experienced this summer when they spent 14 days in Poland as a part of an exchange program with the city of Zabierzow.
For years, Camas High School has sent students to Poland for an English language camp, but it’s the first time a group of middle schoolers has gone.
The trip came about after Camas Superintendent Mike Nerland recommended to Liberty Middle School Principal Marilyn Boerke that she set up a partnership with Zabierzow.
She contacted Lloyd Halverson, Camas city administrator with ties to the Sister City program, and he put her in contact with a local English teacher, Renata Pedrys.
Before long, the group had an itinerary, local students for the middle schoolers to do activities with, and host families lined up.
“I’m always nervous when I travel with kids, but it was very gratifying traveling with this group,” Boerke said. “They were fantastic ambassadors, and we came back with the same number that we left with. It was really a fun time, and the Polish people were so generous.”
While the group was in Poland, they spent much of their time in Krackow, a large city near Zabierzow.
“There were a ton of shops in the town square, and the exchange rate was 3-to-1, so we got some great deals,” Boerke said. “All the kids did a ton of shopping.”
While in Poland, the group mainly used the public transit system to visit different attractions. Some highlights from the trip include staying at a youth hostel in the Alps, rafting down a river into Hungary, visiting centuries-old castles and churches, and touring the local salt mines, which came complete with a church carved from salt. Services were held every Sunday.
“It was amazing,” Boerke said. “The miners would work a full shift, then come back and carve these elaborate designs into the walls.”
The adults and student Liam Bradley also had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, concentration camps that were used to kill millions during World War II.
The other students did not go because the Polish hosts felt it would be too difficult to process without their parents there for support.
Bradley said it forever changed his understanding of the camps.
“When I hear about it in history class, I’ll really be able to understand what it’s all about,” he said.
“Just the sheer magnitude of the whole thing. It was horrifying to think the Nazis would kill all these people and then steal their stuff.”
Boerke said the most eerie part of seeing the concentration camps was going into the gas chamber, which looked like a large shower room. The Nazis would kill massive numbers of people at a time by telling them they got to take showers, then herding them into a locked chamber and turning on the gas. They would take anything of value, including their gold teeth, to sell or barter.
“It was so creepy walking into the shower room, because you almost expected the gas to come on,” Boerke said. “But what really got me was the room filled with the victims’ shoes. There were baby shoes in there. I just can’t imagine.”
Although visiting the concentration camps was a somber experience, other parts of the trip were lighthearted and fun.
The students favorite aspects of the trip varied from buying a pair of shoes that weren’t yet available in the United States to spending time together at the youth hostel, to a river rafting trip.
The group included students from both Liberty and Skyridge Middle Schools. They are Bradley, Elijah Wolfe, Rachel Rakoski, Lacy Harness, Emily Brusseau, Zach Pfeifer, Marcus Roberts, Bennett Lehner, Ella Dewars, Calla Mavros and Danielle Przedwojewski.
Chaperones were Boerke, and parents Carolee Dewars and Juli Bradley.
“I was most excited about learning another culture and seeing what it was like beyond Camas,” Pfeifer said.
Wolfe enjoyed learning a bit of the Polish language.
“It was great actually being able to understand a few things,” he said.
Harness enjoyed learning about Polish history.
“It was interesting being in those old buildings, especially the castles,” she said.
Brusseau said she would like to go back someday.
“Something I learned is that family time is a bit different over there,” she said. “They didn’t watch much T.V.”
Rakoski would also like to return.
“They were really nice to us, and always made sure we had everything,” she said.
As for Boerke, her favorite aspect of the trip was how well the students represented Camas.
“They were gracious, curious and respectful,” she said. “No matter how many churches they marched us in and out of, our kids were always respectful and kind. As an educator, I know this trip has changed their perspectives, and to share that with them is rewarding.”