Imagine a town the size of Matthews with only one fast food restaurant.
But the lack of burgers, fries and shakes didn't bother some south Charlotte teens who were feasting on the sights and sounds of their surroundings in Litchfield, England.
They were excited to be abroad and be part of the People to People Student Ambassador Program. In the summer of 2010, Marissa Cain, Madeline Murphy and Anna Mansfield each received an invitation to participate in this national program.
Recommended students receive letters saying they have been nominated. They go through a series of interviews, meetings and must have at least three recommendations to be considered. The program is open to students ages 10-18 who receive nominations from teachers and other community leaders.
Murphy, 13 and an eighth-grader at Community House Middle School, received her first invitation to the program several years ago when she was a fifth-grader living in Chicago. She was unable to participate at that time.
In late June, an excited group of students boarded their flight for Shannon, Ireland, and had an opportunity to learn about many different cultures.
There were 19 students in the Charlotte area delegation led by a Cornelius couple, Andy and Wendy Harrison. Andy, 33, teaches seventh grade Language Arts at Lake Shore Middle School in Mooresville. His wife, Wendy, 32, taught at the former Davidson International Baccalaureate School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system.
Their group joined other delegations from North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia for a total of 47 students.
They met with an Irish tour guide who immersed the students in the Irish culture.
"It was really beautiful," said Murphy. "We got to do a lot of fun things, horse and buggy rides, waterfalls."
They saw the lakes of Killarney, carved out by glaciers. They visited Lord Brandon's Cottage and the Bunratty Castle, one of Ireland's major historical sites.
The contingent moved on to North Wales, where they had a day of adventure and personal growth. "We climbed a steep, narrow circular staircase at the Penthryn Castle, and when we reached the top we could repel off the 80-foot tower wall," said Cain, 14 and a freshman at Ardrey Kell High School.
"When they called me up, I went to the top and they roped me in," said Mansfield. "It was really high, but I slowly stepped over the edge and rappelled down."
They stayed at a youth hostile in Pitlochry, where they saw a bagpipe parade and enjoyed a Student Adventure Meal, taking part in everyday life in a rural Scottish highland village.
"The food is different," said Cain. "We had orange turnips and haggis, made with ground up lamb innards. I tried it, but you can't think about what you're eating."
Mansfield's favorite place was London.
"The Queen was having one of her special garden parties," said the 13-year-old, eighth-grader at South Charlotte Middle School. "We saw the palace guards and guests, and we saw the balcony where William and Kate announced their marriage plans. I loved seeing the castles, the artifacts." The teens took off for Charlotte in July after evaluating the program and exchanging friendship cards with their fellow ambassadors.
If you were a rising high school freshman, you could keep a journal and complete a project to earn a high school credit. Cain chose Welch food and culture as her project and will always remember the haggis and orange turnips.
"It was definitely a trip of a lifetime," she said.