Rolling Through History : Youths Tour the Country by Bus to Get a New Perspective on the Nation--and on Their Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Visiting restored slave quarters at Williamsburg, Va., brought Ramon Bailey, 15, a new respect for slaves' strength under the harsh lives they led for centuries.

"We're spoiled rotten compared to them," said the 15-year-old Dorsey High School student, who recently returned from a cross-country bus trip sponsored by a local travel agency and the Los Angeles Urban League.

Bailey said things he routinely takes for granted, such as getting an education and being warm at night, would have been luxuries for the slaves. Their houses were small "and there were cracks in the walls. You could see right through them," he said. "They always had to worry about being whipped, or catching pneumonia, or being sold if the overseer thought you weren't working hard enough."

Bailey's broadened awareness is precisely what the trip's organizers had in mind when they arranged for 70 students from the Los Angeles and Oakland areas to make the journey.

After last year's riots, Noel Irwin-Hentschel, president of AmericanTours International, a Los Angeles travel agency, toured city neighborhoods with John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. They found a lot of young people who don't believe they will live to age 18 and who have rarely left the Los Angeles area.

Traveling as a youth, Irwin-Hentschel said, opened her life to new possibilities. So she enlisted the help of the Koreatown-based Korean Youth and Community Center and the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area Urban League chapters to organize the two-week cross-country bus tour. "We wanted them to have an experience they will always remember," she said.

The group, a blend of 25 Latinos, 11 Asian Americans, 25 African Americans, six whites and three Native Americans, was drawn from the Korean center and Urban League by the tour organizers. Students from diverse economic and academic backgrounds were sought.

While on the bus, the students did homework, participated in impromptu geography and history quizzes with the chaperons and kept a journal of their experiences. The travel agency picked up $100,000 in expenses, Irwin-Hentschel said, and Holiday Inn donated the hotel rooms at each of the 14 stops. The itinerary included visits to a slew of national parks (mostly in the Southwest and South), stops at the birthplaces of President Clinton in Arkansas and Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, and tours of the Empire State Building and the White House.

In New York, the group visited the theater where "Late Show With David Letterman" is taped, and heard a choir made up of singers from a Harlem drug rehabilitation program. They also got a troubling glimpse of New York's homeless.

"Seeing all the homeless people was so sad," said Jessica Tarnay, 15, of Westchester.

Trudette Haymon, 16, of Crenshaw High School said the trip changed her life. "I saw there are other cities, other ways of life," she said.

"Sometimes you want to go somewhere where you don't hear the helicopters at night, where you don't have drive-by shootings," Haymon said.

Spending time with a diverse group of students was also an education, she said. "At first, we thought each race would stick with their own. But everybody intermingled. That's what made the trip so great. Never did I think that a black girl and a Korean boy could get together and talk. But I did it on this trip," said Haymon, an African American.

Soo Kim, 15, said her knowledge of Texas had consisted of abstract images created by television and boring history books.

But seeing Texas blew her away, said the Palos Verdes High School freshman. "There was an eagle perched on the sign that said 'Welcome to Texas.' I said, 'Whoa!' I'd never seen an eagle before, except at the zoo."

Standing at the spot in the Texas Book Depository from which the fatal shots were fired at President John F. Kennedy in 1963 made the tragedy more real for her, Kim said.

Kim said she was a little disappointed at the end. "I wasn't glad to get back home, because I met a lot of nice people. And the trip was so much fun because I was learning so much. It was like a history book. But when you see it for yourself, you see how much the history books leave out."

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