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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Giving is receiving

These days, bank groups can do much more than just smell the roses around the many wonders of the world. According to not only bank directors but also bank members, those who have chosen to give as well as to receive are overwhelmed with satisfaction.

Dean Welch and his wife, Judy, were on an African excursion with Prime Time, their bank group from Jacksonville Savings Bank in Jacksonville, Illinois, when they visited the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) School in Kenya, a school for girls.

“The girls were all from sad backgrounds; they were mostly orphans or from broken homes or from families that have serious illnesses. Yet everyone was so gracious. It was incredibly impressive,” said Dean Welch.

During the 2007 visit, the school was in the midst of trying to build a badly needed building, but the task was nearly impossible thanks to a lack of funds.

“Well,” Welch thought aloud, “maybe we could help a little bit.”

It was impeccable timing. The Welches were already registered for an upcoming cross-country, 2,400-mile bicycle trip. They sent out more than 200 letters asking for support, dedicating all of their proceeds to the PCEA cause.

In the end, they raised more than $10,000.

“One of my first letters came back with $300. To this day, I wonder if I did enough. If I had sent out 400 letters, maybe I could have raised $20,000,” said Welch.

Suzie Glisson, Prime Time director, said, “In addition, our local First Presbyterian Church, to which several of the Kenya group members belong, has pledged a yearly mission donation to the school.”

Lead by example
“I think this story is a great example of what bank travel can mean to a community and the far-reaching relationships it can foster. The gracious people of Kenya, particularly the children we visited at PCEA School, touched us all,” said Glisson.

Nearly five years ago, before his appointment as director of the LifeStyle Advantage Club at MidAmerica Bank in Elgin, Illinois, Dean Olson and his wife — for reasons they can’t explain — carried two boxes of school supplies on their dream trip to Africa.

“When we got there, we asked the owner of the Kenya B & B if she knew anyone who could use them. She jumped up and down and led us to this school where children had absolutely nothing,” he said.

“When we came home, we realized that this couldn’t be a one-time thing. Soon after, I saw my parents’ upcoming African itinerary with LifeStyle, and a light bulb turned on. I asked them, ‘Would you be interested in hauling school supplies?’ That really started the ball rolling.”

Because of political problems in Kenya, Olson and his wife have since directed their continued endeavors to a private school in Tanzania. Their efforts are nearly beyond description. To name just a few: In 2008, they spent three months in Tanzania building a library; they have sent 23,000 pounds of books to the school; and they sponsor five children a year. Fourteen children are sponsored in all thanks to LifeStyle group members.

The Olsons have funded these charitable acts, costing tens of thousands of dollars, mostly out of their own pockets. “And certainly, our group members have been very generous in their own giving, including donating school supplies,” Olson said.

In addition, Mid America Bank gives Olson three months off a year as its way of giving.

“Kim and I will be going back in 2009. We also plan to take our group to Thailand or Egypt in 2010. I don’t know the schedule, but I’m sure there will be a school visit to really see the culture up-close-and-personal and possibly raise some money,” he said.

Welch’s excursion with Prime Time was arranged by Trips. Olson’s original venture in delivering school supplies with LifeStyle was with Collette Vacations. Both tour operators offer intimate visits with schools on their itineraries around the world, and both, according to Welch and Olson, were more than enthusiastic with the described endeavors.

“Collette even supplied 25 carry-on bags for group members to tote supplies,” said Olson.

For bank groups looking for giving adventures, CruiseWest is another option. The family-owned company enables travelers to explore remote locales not accessible to larger ships and has conducted up-close encounters with native and local cultures since 1946.

“We have always been conscientious of the impact we can make on the places we visit,” said Jerrol Golden, director of public relations.

CruiseWest, by the dollars raised by photo compact disc sales on its trips, has made a big difference for the La Paz Orphanage in Mexico, the Embera village of Playa del Muerto in Central America, migrant workers around its Columbia and Snake rivers cruise areas, and many other needy causes.

For travelers who want to also get their hands dirty, RockResorts, with lavish properties throughout the country and in the Caribbean, offers Give and Getaway packages that range from volunteer projects in trail restoration in Colorado’s White River National Forest to helping farmers in St. Lucia. Participants who take a little time off from RockResorts’ spa and cuisine in order to make the world a better place are treated to a discount on lodging.

“RockResorts has a commitment to the environment,” said spokeswoman Lorianne Lacy.

The gift is in the giving
In addition to their cross-country bike trek, the Welches, avid cyclists, have also taken a trip around the world on two wheels. In 2000, they rode 15,000 miles over six continents and 45 countries. Yet, their favorite adventure to discuss is their experience with the PCEA School.

“In 1997, the school started with 10 girls. In 2007, 130 girls attended. Their goal is to have 300,” Welch said.

Like many bank members who have visited the area, Welch was overwhelmed with the poverty yet the depth of spirit that abounds. “Teresia Wahome, the head teacher, said, ‘Educate a man and you have an educated man. Educate a woman and you educate a nation.’ The girls’ houses are made of cow dung and grass. People live off the land. And then you visit this school where the girls very well may have been sold into marriage, and today they have such a chance.

“It’s a remarkable place, and we are so lucky to be part of it,” Welch said.

Olson, with the LifeStyle Advantage Club, said, “I think volunteer/giving travel is on an upswing, and I think that is fantastic. Years later, our group is still talking about the school, even more than the animals that they saw in Africa.

“We, as bank travel directors, are capable of accomplishing that kind of impression everywhere we go.”