Local student has a summer she will not forget
When Lydia De Leon’s classmates at Humble High School ask how she spent her summer, her answer will be far from ordinary.
The 17-year old took her first trip on an airplane, navigated New York City, traveled to Thailand and spent weeks caring for her favorite animal — the elephant.
De Leon said it all started when she stumbled upon an ad on Facebook for Loop Abroad, a summer program for teens who are interested in conservation and ecology.
“I heard about it back in December,” she said. “But I never really thought much about it, because I didn’t think it was possible for me to go.”
Eventually, she mustered up the courage and passed the idea by her parents and was surprised when they agreed to let her apply.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I had never been out of the country. Going around the world was a big deal and I had never flown on an airplane either, so it was an even bigger deal.”
But she was determined to go, because the program would bring her to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“I love elephants,” De Leon said. “They all have a unique character. I think elephants are amazing.”
She applied online and gathered references, her school transcript and recommendation letters.
She also had to write an essay about why she should be selected for the trip.
“I wrote about how I’m the president of the school orchestra and about my leadership skills being in the National
Honor Society,” she said.
De Leon also wrote about her job at Quiznos and her love of animals.
“It was only a matter of days,” she said. “I got my acceptance letter. I was checking my email and so excited. It was kind of surreal.”
Her first flight ever was to New York City in May. Once she arrived at the hotel, she met other girls in the program.
“We talked basically the whole night,” De Leon said.
Her first two weeks in Thailand were spent learning about the local culture. She met Buddhist monks.
“I learned a lot about Buddhism and their way of life,” she said. “It’s a land of smiles. People are friendly and kind.”
The second week was spent with the elephants. De Leon cooked their food, bathed them, and studied the giant creatures.
She said she learned how elephants are mistreated around the world.
“I knew there was abuse, but we really got deep into it,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. It really made me look at how every animal is treated.”
Jane Stine, managing director for Loop Abroad, said the program started in 2009.
“Our focus continues to be on authentic and amazing conservation-focused trips,” she said.
“All of our programs work with the Elephant Nature Foundation, and we love that we’re able to support respected, local organizations that are making positive change.”
Stine added that the program is ideal for students who love animals.
“If you love elephants, and especially if you want to work with animals in a professional capacity, we are the right program to choose,” she said.
“For students who want to be veterinarians, I think we have one of the best programs available, it’s a lot of hands-on and classroom experience in a small group of motivated students, working with a U.S. veterinarian whose primary job is to help you learn.”
She said a number of past participants end up in veterinary school.
“Our students stay in touch and support one another as they continue to travel, take on academic challenges, get new jobs and internships,” she said.
“We hope that their trip makes them realize that they can take on challenges they wouldn’t have expected, that fun things can also be hard, and that hard things can be and often are worth doing.”
De Leon, who attends Humble High School and wants to be a doctor, said that she took home a lot more than photos with elephants and lasting memories. She also is inspired to do what she can to help animals.
“I want to do more volunteer work here with animal shelters and just help out,” she said. “I definitely would like to do more stuff like this, and I plan on going back in 2017.”
De Leon said she would definitely recommend the experience to other high school students.
“You learn so much about the people in Thailand,” she said. “It will open your mind. You obtain so much information about elephants and animals in general.
“It was an amazing experience.”
For more information about Loop Abroad, visit loopabroad.com.