A group of eighth graders in Gifford, Ill. are working hard to raise money so they can spend a few days in our nation's capital. They're just a handful of the many thousands of school kids who descend on this city every year. And their goal is pretty straightforward: Washington, or bust!
Bake sales and car washes pave the way to D.C.
Gifford, with a population of less than 1,000 people, is a rural community that sits in the midst of golden cornfields in central Illinois. Students at a local middle school had the opportunity to select the location of their field trip next spring. The students chose Washington, D.C.
"Some of the moms wanted to go to Vegas instead of D.C. but the kids overruled," laughs Gwen Wilson, one of the students' mothers. "It's the nation's capital, so many tremendous bits of American history. I can't really imagine where else you'd like to go."
She says the five-day trip will cost approximately $450 dollars per student. The expense goes to fund the bus, hotel and food. In an effort to include every student, Wilson says they're committed to doing fundraisers to help pay the cost.
"All the adults felt the same way," she says. "We don't want anyone excluded because of money."
Theresa Belpulsi, head of the Visitor Services and Tourism for Destination D.C., says there were a million tour group visitors who came to Washington last year.
"Out of that million, approximately 51 percent are student groups that come here," she says. "That's approximately 30,000 motor coach buses that come on an annual basis."
Belpulsi says the spring and fall are when most student groups visit. Next spring, the students at Gifford will be part of that group, and they're counting down the days until March 2012.
Going from small town to big city
"Here in rural Gifford, your biggest problem on the way to work is a combine or tractor in your way, not hundreds of cars and thousands of people," says Wilson. It's so different, you feel like the country mouse in the city. Looking at all the big buildings, our biggest building is the grain tower! It's cool for the kids; it's going to be interesting to see how they respond."
Keegan Brooks, one of the students, says washing cars and delivering pizzas will be worth it. He's already lined up what he most wants to see.
"I'm a really big Abraham Lincoln fan, the Martin Luther King, I'd like to go see that" says Brooks. "I think it's going to be fun. I like history, so I want to learn all about it."
But he has mixed feelings about the trip. One of his parents is coming along as a chaperone.
"I was kind of excited and kind of bummed because I have my family there," he says. "I was trying to get away!'
There will be no getting away from family for Keegan, or any of the other Gifford students. Almost twice as many family members as students have signed up to go. Angela Bensyl says she went to Six Flags on her high school trip, so she's looking forward to visiting D.C., and so is her mother, whose brother served in Vietnam.
"So we are looking forward to seeing the Vietnam Memorial," says Bensyl. "That will be a special connection, honoring our uncle, her brother."
Belpulsi says she's always amazed by how students react when they come to D.C. and see the 'real deal,' whether it's the National Mall, the Washington Monument or the White House.
"They can really feel the history when they're in the city," she says. "They really don't understand what the power is until they actually get here."
Of course, before they can get here, these Washington outsiders still have more cakes and cookies to bake, more gas to pump, and many more pizzas to deliver.
[Music: "Washington D.C." by Teacher & The Rockbots from American]
Photos: Student Tourists