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Of course Theo Rankin wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand.

The only time he’d been out of the country was on a family vacation to the Bahamas, going Down Under would offer him an opportunity of a lifetime.

“I’ve always wanted to see a koala bear,” said the Westlake High School senior who was nominated to participate in the People to People international trip to Australia and New Zealand.

Spending the better part of this month visiting sites like the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, bunking with a family in New Zealand, participating in service projects, visiting parliament buildings and yes, seeing wildlife like koalas, Rankin and 42 other students will join the ranks of thousands of other students who have been a part of the program that was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Candidates for People to People are mature, very good in social situations, can adapt easily and usually have past experience with community involvement and are eager to learn, said Scott Cocking, a senior director with People to People, which is based in Spokane, Wash.

“Our mission is to fulfill Eisenhower’s vision,” Cocking said. “He saw an opportunity coming out of [World War II] for ordinary citizens connecting with other ordinary citizens can bring us closer than any government can.”

In order to secure a spot, candidates have to raise money for the trip.

The South Pacific adventure Rankin was assigned would cost more than $8,000.

He and his mother, Truline Rodgers, started to come up with ideas for fundraisers.

They would have less than a year to come up with the trip fee, but they were up for it.

Rankin sold cookie dough, flowers for Mother’s Day, held yard sales, raffles and collected cell phones for recycling.

People to People suggested students break down the fundraising, so they aren’t overwhelmed in the beginning.

Also, program participants were interviewed, took quizzes on the areas they would be visiting and did research to find out more about the sites they would see and the people they would get to know.

That only spurred Rankin on, he said.

The more he learned the more he was eager. “I want to go. I want to go. I want to go,” he said.

Janki Kaswala of La Plata was a sophomore in high school when she went on her first People to People trip.

She went to Australia and signed up with the organization again as a senior to go to Peru.

“There were a lot of good experiences that ranged from being in a different culture to just getting to understand myself,” said Kaswala, in an email. “I think just about everyone who goes overseas realizes — if they hadn't already — that people are all the same no matter where they are. Sure, they have different behaviors, but we all feel exactly the same things.

“That was one of the biggest lessons and it included an understanding about the way I thought as an American teenager,” she continued. “I learned exactly how spoiled I was at times — running water is a luxury, not a necessity — but how tough I was too — I used to not even try climbing hills and then out of nowhere, I made it up a mountain. You tend to learn to be more grateful for what you have when you leave the States. You also learn to be respectful, understanding and caring of others.”

The People to People program travels to seven continents and 40 countries, Cocking said.

It is an educational-based program led by teachers.

Organizers hope students return home more excited about various subjects after seeing them face to face and gain a larger world view.

“They cover everything,” Kaswala wrote about her experience. “The food, places, history, culture of the past and of today’s. You’ll leave feeling like you were one of that country's people.”

Rankin, 16, said he was relaxed in the beginning of the process.

He figured he had plenty of time but once the travel date of July 3 neared, he was getting more excited.

“It took a while to get geared up,” he said. “But I think it’s definitely worth it.”

And to the community, family, friends and his church, Evangel Cathedral, that helped him realize his goal, he has nothing but gratitude, he said.

staylor@somdnews.com