Lo­cal stu­dent has a sum­mer she will not for­get

Houston Chronicle - - KINGWOOD COMMUNITY EXTRA - By Lind­say Pey­ton

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.

Cour­tesy

Ly­dia De Leon, right, helps other stu­dents give a bath to an ele­phant dur­ing her sum­mer trip with Loop Abroad, a pro­gram for teens who are in­ter­ested in con­ser­va­tion and ecol­ogy. De Leon got to spend time with her fa­vorite an­i­mal, the ele­phant.

Cour­tesy Ly­dia De Leon

When Ly­dia De Leon’s class­mates at Hum­ble 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...

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