From the cold temperatures of a New Canaan winter to the scorching sun of Hawaii's beaches, Michael DeMattia learned something about himself and his environment on a service trip he took over the winter break of his junior year at New Canaan High School.
In December, DeMattia's essay, "Something Just ... Clicked" was chosen from among 2,000 essays as an honorable mention for the Family Travel Forum's Teen Travel Writing Scholarship. The essay focused on the 19 days he spent in Kauai, Hawaii, working on a program offered by The Road Less Traveled, an organization that provides service trips for teens over the summer.
In Hawaii, DeMattia and his group built and renovated houses with Habitat for Humanity. For his honorable mention award, he won a stipend to travel anywhere in the world. The Family Travel Forum is an online community where people share their experiences and destinations of family vacations and travels. For the past six years, the site has conducted a scholarship essay contest.
In his essay, DeMattia, then a junior at NCHS, examined how his time spent in Maui and Kauai changed his temperament, from being focused on the hectic life of a high-school student plugged into social networks and working on college applications, to a much more relaxed one.
For him, Hawaii provided an antidote for the Northeast.
In Hawaii, he met and befriended 19 high school students in the program. They worked on renovating houses on the, perhaps surprisingly poor, islands of Hawaii.
Though many may think of Hawaii as a paradise of luxury and beaches, impoverishment is a real problem on the islands, where more than 10 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau.
"What they're doing now because of the economic downturn, they're upgrading apartment-style living because they found that they were giving people houses who weren't able to afford to keep them. So we were doing drywall, plumbing, painting and that type of thing," DeMattia said.
Last summer, DeMattia volunteered again with The Road Less Traveled in Costa Rica and Panama, where he worked at a malnutrition clinic, which was a two-hour ATV ride from the nearest airport through the hills of Panama to a small town.
He said he became involved with the program at a time when he felt too old for camp, but wasn't looking forward to a summer spent toiling within the confines of corporate culture.
"Sophomore year, I was done with summer camp and thought I should get a job," he said. "I was dreading sitting in a cubicle all summer and I got a brochure in the mail and checked it out. It stood out for me for focusing on the group of people that you would be with and what you could learn from them in addition to the country you're visiting."
DeMattia learned of the Teen Travel Writing Scholarship from a member of his group in Hawaii who had applied for and won a scholarship the previous year.
"I remember reading hers as I came home and said, `That's awesome, I'm going to write something.' I was going through college applications and how to pay for college (at the time)."
From the 2,000 submitted essays, DeMattia's went through a series of judges, starting with college journalism students, then editors at the Family Travel Forum, and finally writers and editors of the Association of American Travel Writers, to be one of 25 Honorable Mentions.
DeMattia is a freshman at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was recently became a news editor for the school paper, the Tulane Hullabaloo.
Fran Falkin, senior editor at myfamilytravels.com, the Family Travel Forum's website, explained the idea of the scholarship.
"The point is to encourage students to share their experiences through word and visual images and explain what they learned and what it meant to them," she said. "Kids go on a variety of trips, sometimes cultural exchanges, ethnicity trips, mission trips, and some of them are just for fun."
DeMattia said he had not yet decided for sure where he'd go with his stipend award, but had some ideas.
"I was exploring Road Less Traveled sites, and I'm thinking about the South Pacific or maybe Australia, with the Great Barrier Reef. I'm a sucker for warm beaches."
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