“It turned out that those two communities had a lot of tension between them,” she said.
What happened next, however, sticks with her to this day.
“What the team did is set up a game day where host families and their UWP cast came together for one day to have a picnic with activities for little kids,” she said. “Kids began running off and playing, because they don’t know what’s going on.”
Then, she said, the hostility all but vanished.
“Eventually, people just started sitting down and talking to each other — it didn’t really matter which town they were from. After we packed up and left we were getting letters saying ‘You don’t know what you did,’” she said. “After that day, ice just melted and you realize they’re all just people like us — the tension just dissolved. It made all the difference to us, and that’s what’s so great. It wasn’t intentional, but it happened. We changed a lot of things that day.”
While it may just be a lone example, the tale signifies why Nelson (an Up With People alumna) took an interest in the organization more than three decades ago, and why she continues to spread tales of the effect they can have far and wide.
The international performing cast will pass through Houston on their world tour April 17-23, including a stop in Leader country at St. Pius X High School for a performance on April 21.
“We want to bring the world together and show that no matter where you’re from, there’s a common base, and you need to find a dialogue to solve problems that might arise,” Up with People Promotions Representative Julia Frey said. “It’s about global understanding, and we want to inspire the communities we visit to get involved and show that change starts in your own community. You can help your neighbors or an organization in your town— that’s where it starts and we want to empower people to do that.”
Up with People is a non-profit global education, community service, leadership and performing arts program that takes 100 participants from 20 different countries on a world tour, and Nelson was hooked from the moment she saw it as part of the Texas Longhorn Band.
“What drew me in was the message that they had, and it was just good family entertainment with a lot of original music,” Nelson said. “The whole idea of being able to do what they did – travel around, put on shows with a good message – was fascinating.”
Just months later, gazing out the window of a train traveling from Oslo to Bergen, Norway, it suddenly dawned on her.
“I’m here, I’m doing it. It’s so far beyond anything I had ever imagined that I’d be able to do, and it was a dream come true,” she said. “You didn’t need to have talent, and that was the really cool thing about it—they just interviewed you and you were in.”
Whether from Texas or Canada, Japan or anywhere in between, Frey said every one of the cast members has their role to play.
“It’s all about bringing in different people from places all around the world with different ideas and values,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you have talent or not (though we sure have talented people), when we develop the show everybody gets their spot. Everybody has their part where they can grow.”
There is more than one facet of growth as the result of globe-trotting, however. Nelson and others were (and are) thrown in the middle of essentially a giant melting pot of cultures, traditions and experiences— the best education one could ever have in Nelson’s eyes.
“Four hundred of us showed up in Tucson, and I knew one of them,” she said. “You’d be sitting on the bus with someone from Japan, Alaska, the Bahamas, wherever. You would begin talking and sharing about your life—just normal conversations learning about their lives.”
Members are divided into groups of 100 upon arriving to their next country of performance and sent off to live with native host families — deepening the cast’s bond as they work to understand each town’s cultures and traditions, which it continues to do today.
“You’ve got the element of these people in the cast from all different countries going to another country where everybody is unfamiliar with it,” Nelson said. “There so many levels on which to relate to people. When you stayed with the families, you got a whole different picture of what it was like to live there, because you did what the families did.”
Coming back to the United States, Nelson said the experience changed her forever, and she goes to bed each night thanking God for those she met and the revelations made clear to her. “I didn’t realize how rich we are here, and I took it for granted,” she said. “I also came back with an appreciation for the different cultures, because they were the nicest people. They didn’t have much, but they were kind-hearted good people enjoying their lives with what they had.”
We’re all the same
While the experiences she had were amazing, Nelson acknowledged none of it would be possible without the backbone – host families. Not only do they provide a home, but in Nelson’s experience they have been some of the kindest people she’s had the pleasure of meeting.
Take, for example the night in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot, and Nelson and others didn’t hear the news until after a show in the Netherlands when their somber host family informed them of the tragedy.
“That family that had been dancing around the table with us (before) turned into the family who would comfort us, who would be kind to us and help us get through it. We knew we wanted to be in the States but we couldn’t, and they helped us through that,” she said. “Their role completely changed within a matter of days. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, we all go through these similar problems and struggles.”
These are just a few of the tales Nelson has locked away in her memory, and she encouraged others to take a similar leap of faith as she did 30 years ago, no matter how scary it may be — it will be worth it.
“It was the best two years of my life, and it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” she said. “There was no better education I could have gotten than what I got with this group. I still have letters from my host families and stay in touch with them. It’s a one-of-a-kind organization, and I don’t know anywhere else you could have an experience that stays with you for the rest of your life.”
As of now, only 28 members of the 100-person cast currently have a home to stay at while in Houston, and UWP is in desperate need of more families. For more information or if you’re interested in becoming a host, visit upwithpeople.org or contact Addison O’Conner, firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-430-4396.