Young man's college: Volunteering abroad
29 August 2005
Palo Alto, USA: Palo Alto teenager Wolf Price has never shied away from adventure. He was not quite three when his family travelled to the tropical island of Bora Bora. One afternoon, he turned to his mother and announced that he wanted to walk to a different part of the island, not more than 100 yards away but obscured from her view by trees. And he wanted to go alone.
"That's when I saw how determined he was,'' said his mother, Mary Bartnikowski.
That determination has propelled Price, 18, through more recent travels to Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Morocco. And it has led to his latest venture: forming a non-profit, World of Possibilities, that he hopes will introduce less fortunate teens to global travel.
Price took off for Thailand earlier this week and will spend the next eight months volunteering with organizations in Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and India. He'll teach English, work in orphanages and make contacts with agencies that could help him get World of Possibilities off the ground.
It's a different path from the college route that many of his Palo Alto High School friends are taking. But Price hasn't always done things the traditional way. He doesn't have a car or even a driver's license, preferring to travel by bicycle or skateboard -- at least, he says, until hydrogen-powered cars come on the market. His favorite subject in school was art, his favorite books about Eastern nations and philosophies. And when his classmates were getting stressed applying to colleges, Price wasn't interested.
"I never wanted to work in the corporate world, have a dead-end job, that kind of thing,'' he said. And while he hasn't ruled out college for good, he's content to wait until he's sure what he wants to study. Until then, he said, he intends to learn about different countries and cultures by seeing them first hand.
"I've always thought of after high school as the time when you can make a choice,'' he said. "I can learn a lot of things from travelling and reading and experience.''
That process started last summer. At 17, he took the money he'd saved from working at Whole Foods Market and spent six weeks travelling around Europe, staying with friends and in hostels. He became fascinated with differences between life in the United States and life abroad: Germany's recycling system, Switzerland's efficiency, even the way different countries pruned their trees. He travelled mainly by train, where he'd make friends with other passengers and look out the window at the landscapes of different nations.
"It opened my eyes,'' he said. "My perception of the world and my perception of life as we know it just opened up for me in a huge way.''
Price came back for his senior year of high school, but he was already mentally planning his next trip. He graduated a semester early and spent three months travelling with his friend Katharine Rondthaler, passing through much of Western Europe and taking an impromptu three-week tour of Morocco. Price could strike up a conversation with anyone, Rondthaler said.
"He was just very friendly with these people,'' Rondthaler, 18, said. "We would get in these situations where we would be just having dinner with someone and their whole family, not even speaking the same language as them but having these huge conversations.''
The idea for World of Possibilities soon followed. At work one day he was struck by the benefit travel could have for troubled teens, introducing them to other cultures and showing them how much good they could do. At first, he figured it was something to pursue later in life. But the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to get started.
"There's no point in waiting when I could die or be corrupted by money or something,'' he said. "I can be successful now. I don't know why I thought I would ever wait.''
He's working on a model for recruiting teenagers and raising money to send them on volunteer missions abroad. The Global Education and Action Network (GLEAN), a Mill Valley-based non-profit organization that sends teens abroad, is considering sponsoring World of Possibilities so that it can take tax-deductible contributions until Price can legally incorporate as a separate non-profit. The main difference between the two organizations is that World of Possibilities focuses on low-income kids.
"I'm really an advocate for young people who have a dream to do it and make it happen,'' said Suzanne Lettrick, GLEAN's executive director.
Price's mother, an author and photographer, said her son's expeditions have encouraged her to do her own volunteer work abroad. She plans to spend three months in Nepal and Sri Lanka this winter, teaching English and photography.
Initially, she said, she worried about her only child travelling the world alone. But when he told her about his plan for World of Possibilities and volunteering in Asia, she saw the conviction in his eyes -- the same look she saw from a 2-year-old boy years ago on Bora Bora.
"He was so passionate about it and so clear-cut,'' she said. "There was just no other choice.''