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Spain trip back on for Pembroke students, thanks to last-minute grant

Nine Pembroke Academy students whose educational trip to Spain was jeopardized last week have learned the excursion is back on, thanks to a last-minute infusion of cash from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

The group had been scheduled to depart from Boston on Tuesday, but were told late last week that the company booking the tour, Mariden USA, was facing bankruptcy and would be unable to fulfill its contract.

But on Thursday, the foundation told the group’s head chaperone, Ursula Askins-Huber, a Spanish teacher at the high school, that it would front a majority of the expenses, using a fund created explicitly for cultural exchange.

“When the foundation told me, I knew that was sort of the last piece of the puzzle,” Askins-Huber said yesterday. “I couldn’t even compose the email (to parents) because I was weeping.”

Askins-Huber said the kids and their parents, upon hearing the news, were “floored.”

Judy Pearson, who said her 17-year-old son, Michael, has saved for two years to help pay for the trip, admitted she had nearly given up hope that the trip would materialize before hearing about the grant.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster,” she said. “From severe disappointment and devastation to shock and excitement.”

Deborah Schachter, a senior program officer at the foundation, said she and others were thrilled to be able to pitch in and help bring the trip to fruition.

She said it’s unusual for the foundation to approve a grant of this nature with such short notice; applicants are typically required to present detailed budget requests and various fundraising strategies to help offset costs. But after reading about the group’s plight in the newspaper and talking with Askins-Huber earlier this week, Schachter said they made a “quick decision” to green-light the project anyway.

“We’re delighted,” she said. “These kids worked hard, and it looked like it was going to fall through. We’re excited that they’re going to have this valuable, life-changing trip abroad.”

Meanwhile, Askins-Huber said she and each of the other travelers, including one other chaperone, had filed claims through their travel insurer, and were hopeful they will each be able to recoup the $3,700 they doled out for the trip. Should that happen, the group plans to fully reimburse the foundation for its contribution, she said.

Askins-Huber said the cost of the trip had dropped by several hundred dollars because the group is no longer booking through a company. That will come at a price, however, she noted.

“There will be no luxurious hotel, no glamorous swimming pool,” she said. “There is going to be a lot of time spent waiting at bus depots.

“It’s a little more burden on all of us, but I’m glad to do it to make this trip a success.”

Askins-Huber said she spent most of yesterday scrambling to secure accommodations and air travel. Because the flight the group had planned to take Tuesday was no longer available, they now plan to leave Monday evening.

The trip will last 10 days and include stops in Madrid, Seville, Segovia and Toledo, and possibly Grenada pending energy levels.

Learning that the trip would likely not happen was heartbreaking, Askins-Huber said, because the students – soon-to-be juniors and seniors, and one graduating senior – had spent time not only raising money for the trip, but also learning about Spain, its culture, art and idiosyncrasies.

“We have been talking about Spain pretty much all this last semester,” she said. “I’ve had them doing reports on Spanish cities and artists, so to be able to be in those cities and connect with that city, to see the different hand gestures they use, to see how people in Spain stand closer together when they talk, how waiting in line is different there – this is going to sound cheesy, but it’s what I tell my students: I really believe that learning another language is a step toward world peace. If you can understand what someone else is saying, you can begin to understand their perspective, and in turn help them understand yours.

“I want (the students) to be diplomats, emissaries for our country, and for them to bring back the knowledge they learn to their peers.”

Askins-Huber had never entirely given up hope that the trip would come to fruition; even after learning that Mariden was backing out, she reached out to people who might be able to help.

“I had all these balls in the air,” she said. “I knew the parents wouldn’t be able to be put up the money. But I started putting up the framework for the trip anyway. Several people had called and said they were interested in helping out. So when things did work out, I was ready.”

Asked whether she would consider booking through a company again, Askins-Huber said she hasn’t ruled it out. “Stuff like this happens,” she said. “I feel sorry for Mariden. They were a family-run business. Even though they are going under, they’ve reached out, the owner has gotten in touch and suggested ideas for places to stay and travel.”

Meredith Marshall, an 18-year-old graduating senior going on the trip, said yesterday that this will be her first trip to Europe. She said had essentially lost hope that it would happen, and is still getting used to the news that it’s back on.

“I’m excited, but it’s not anything huge,” she said. “It’s kind of bubbling in the back of my head, and on Monday when I have to get up early I’m going to be like, ‘Whoa, you’re going to Spain. You’re going to a country where you are nearly fluent in the language, and it’s going to be wicked awesome.’ ”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

This is wonderful news. I am so happy for these kids.

Ms. Askins-Huber is a mighty forgiving person. If a person took $3,700 dollars from me, kept all the money for themselves by not paying for the hotel, transportation charges etc..., I would be asking the police why they are not charged with fraud. One would think at some point between receiving the money and now the agent must have reported how things were going.

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