Skype pals visit Pittsburgh as part of Ecuador exchange

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Near the end of his trip to Quito, Ecuador, as he and his fellow travelers danced with their new friends, Christian Modrak had a simple, yet profound, realization.

“After we had been dancing for two hours, I looked around and forgot I was in Ecuador,” the Brashear High School senior says. “We were all just human beings.”

That experience speaks to the heart of Scaling the Walls, a club of 20 teens who meet at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side once a week to learn about other cultures. The trip to Ecuador from April 9 to 17 included six of those members who were able to meet their South American peers in person after weeks of Skyping. Beginning April 30, they got to play host when a group from Ecuador arrived in Pittsburgh.

Scaling the Walls/Escalando Paredes is a cultural exchange between the local Children's Museum and the Interactive Science Museum in Quito. Members, recruited from high-school Spanish classes, learn about the connection between plants, food, the environment and health. The teens also develop their Spanish language skills.

Their Skype conversations with the students in Ecuador allow them to share photos and learn about each other's culture and daily lives.

The partnership, which launched in September, is funded through the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums.

The teens who traveled to Ecuador — the first time on a plane for most — are Modrak, Ella Blue and Selena Watson of City Charter High School, Tyrae Brewer of Perry Traditional Academy, Maura Frank of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Sarah Gaitens of Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school.

“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” Brewer, 17, says of the trip.

Kimberly Bracken, the museum's community programs manager, who helped organize the club and trip, called the experience empowering for each student, all of whom had to procure passports for the first time.

“When traveling internationally, there can be a lot of barriers in people's minds: What will security be like? What should I pack? How will I navigate a language barrier?” Bracken says. “These are pretty courageous kids. They all feel they can go anywhere now.

“Travel can be so transformative,” Bracken says. “We were really taken aback by the hospitality and warmth. Everyone was lovely, really easy to be around, really welcoming.”

During their stay, students toured historic neighborhoods, attended picnics and explored artisan craft markets. The highlight, they agree, was a camping trip in Tulipe, where they hiked through a cloud forest, made chocolate from cacao pods and had a bonfire.

As none of the students were fluent in each other's languages, there was a bit of a barrier. But it didn't take long to figure out ways around it.

“We kind of stumbled our way through getting to know each other, but it was a great reminder that we're all humans, and language isn't everything,” Bracken says.

Watson, 16, says the trip inspired an enthusiasm for travel in her.

“Going down there gave me a new perspective on everything,” she says. “Staying with the teens and interacting with them so much in such a beautiful place was sort of magical.”

Club members are showing their friends from Ecuador around the city through May 9, stopping by the incline, Strip District, PNC Park, museums and Phipps Conservatory. The students are staying on the North Side and enjoy exploring the neighborhood.

During a trip to the National Aviary, the students excitedly snapped photos (swapping “Queso!” for “Cheese!”), explored the exhibits and learned English words for the various species. A highlight was a discussion with Steven Latta, director of conservation and field research, who is fluent in Spanish and has worked in Ecuador.

“For us, this is amazing,” says Estefania Arias, an administrator with the Interactive Science Museum in Quito, who accompanied the students on the trip. “All the kids are very interested in knowing more about the U.S.”

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