MELISSA – For the past 12 years, teacher Brett Gustaveson’s Spanish classes at Melissa High School have gone the extra mile. Students not only learn the language under his tutelage but every two years many travel together to a distant country where the language is widely spoken. It’s immersion learning to the max.
The trips aren’t associated with or paid for by the school. Students fundraise and work for months leading up their departure to help cover costs. So far the popular Spring Break jaunts have taken MHS kids to Peru, Ecuador, Spain and Argentina.
Preparation for the trips includes at least two years of in-depth study of the country to which they’ll travel.
Mostly recently the destination was Chile, on the west coast of South America.
For Cardinal baseball players like veteran pitcher Sam Crain, who made that trip, these adventures fall smack in the middle of baseball season – and usually just before district play. While some coaches might try to dissuade players from this mid-season globetrotting, Melissa head baseball coach Jason Russell seems to take it in stride, with some good-natured griping. Two years ago, Cards 3-time team MVP Tate Whittington took a trip.
“It’s a great experience for our kids,” Russell said recently. “Sam told me [he was going] about a year in advance. I would give him a hard time about leaving during the season. I’d always make up a new place he was going – Argentina, Afghanistan, Nicaragua. I never called it Chile.”
From his home in Melissa on June 11, Crain spoke of the group’s eight-day trek to Chile – his furthest sojourn from home to date. “One of the main things was to serve,” he said. “Have a good time but always remember to give back to people that don’t have as much.”
The “Good Samaritan” focus of this year’s trip was an orphanage in the Chilean capital of Santiago. More on that later.
Melissa’s 24 students and eight chaperones began their journey on March 8, flying 9-1/2 hours non-stop from DFW to Santiago. While in country they would travel by bus, subway and plane - including a flight south to Punta Arenas and the Patagonia region, less than 2,000 miles from an outstretched finger of Antarctica.
While in Santiago the group stayed in apartments, four to a room, and used the Metro subway system almost exclusively. Santiago, Crain said, reminded him a bit of Los Angeles. “There are people everywhere.”
He added, “I really didn’t see that many police at all. I didn’t feel threatened or anything. It felt safe. People were respectful because they knew we were tourists. They were offering to help. … There are some people there that are in poverty and it’s really bad. It just made me appreciate what we have here and how to be thankful for so much.”
Several in the group traveled by bus one day from Santiago to the beach at Vena Del Mar for some surfing. Crain called the conditions mostly “beginner waves” but “really good for learning.”
This is where Crain, who packed his glove for the trip, got in some make-shift pitching practice. Catching for him there in the sand were buddies Nathan Foster and Connor Newberry. “People asked what team I played on down there,” Crain said. “They were amazed that we were just throwing on the beach.”
That day-trip also included a stop in the port city of Valparaiso.
Day 3 was set aside for the orphanage. Prior to leaving for Chile, the Melissa students had raised over $5,000 for the Hogar Esperanza orphanage through Go Fund Me and other efforts. The monies went to a new air conditioning system and various supplies for the facility. During their visit, the group cleaned much of the grounds - inside and out - repaired flooring and spent time with the kids.
“We got to go interact with them,” Crain said. “It was really cool to see that because they’re just always having fun. Some of the kids got really attached. They didn’t want us to leave. They were holding on.”
“It’s sad to see but [it’s good] just to know that these people that run the orphanage care so much about them and they’re, like, dedicating their lives to do that. It’s great to see that people want to help.”
Crain, who is adopted himself, got to witness a toddler leaving the orphanage with his new parents. “They came and got him and were walking out as we were there,” he said. “They were so happy.”
While technology in Chile seemed to be a par with the U.S., Crain said, the infrastructure was not in the best shape. And he also noticed some stark economic divides. “There’s a bridge in Santiago. And there’s the wealthy side and then as soon as you go underneath that bridge, it just plateaus, it falls off completely.”
On Day 4, the group flew three hours down to Punta Arenas where a hostel provided lodging, with 10 to a room. From there, they traveled by bus up into Patagonia, home to the Torres del Paine National Park, a favorite portion of the trip for Cain.
“The videos didn’t do it justice,” he said. “That was by far the best scenery that I saw there. They have lakes and the mountains that are so nice.”
While in that area, Crain and about 10 others took a dip in the icy waters of the Strait of Magellan.
As for Chilean cuisine, Crain noted, “The big thing down there was empanadas. When we were on the coast I had to try the seafood. I had ceviche [fish seared in lemon juice], crab empanadas, scallops and chowder.” Crain also tried cow tongue at a steakhouse, which he deemed “better than I thought it was going to be.”
“They plan every aspect of the trip,” Gustaveson said by phone on June 12. “They set the itinerary and make all the plans. Then we go experience the country, first-hand. I just love to see the growth in the kids. They start planning the trip as freshmen because it takes them about two years to raise the money and get ready. … They’re able to do a lot of things they’re going to be doing as adults in making decisions that help them to grow.”
Chile, a long, narrow country that stretches almost 3,000 miles, is 220 miles across at its widest point, 40 miles at its narrowest. The country’s seasons are opposite from that in the northern hemisphere. Though early fall when the group was there, Crain said the Andes Mountains, which run the length of Chile’s east side, where still snow-capped.
Crain’s father, Thomas Crain, said at his home on June 11 that he and his wife Karen had been somewhat nervous about their son taking such a long trip. “Being the only kid, he’s growing up fast and we’re seeing those years slip away. But it was exciting for us to see that. … Brett Gustaveson is a fantastic person so if I had to trust him with anybody it would be him. We were very pleased that they were helping an orphanage.
“We knew the benefits outweighed anything that we were nervous about. For him to have that opportunity was just fantastic.”
As for his son getting to witness an adoption, Thomas said, “It had to be - I wouldn’t say life-changing for him - but definitely eye-opening to see that. We’re a really close family, but you can’t force those experiences. You can try to put somebody in that situation but it’s better that it just happens, I think, the way it did.”
Thomas noted that everyone stayed in touch via text, Facebook and Snapchat.
“I definitely recommend traveling abroad,” Crain said. “It’s a great experience to learn about another culture.”
Oh - and Crain’s first start on the mound upon his return? He struck out 10 as the Cards cruised past Sanger, 5-0, and moved to 2-0 in district play. But don’t look for Russell to start scheduling mid-season getaways anytime soon.