RIDGEFIELD — Rachel Bodner is certain she has had a better summer vacation than her Ridgefield High School friends, particularly those that traveled a few hours away to popular spots.
Bodner, a senior and captain of the girls tennis team, also went on a trip, one that lasted three weeks and sent her nearly 7,500 miles away. The amenities where Bodner stayed were a little different from the hotels and B&Bs on the Cape or Jersey Shore.
Bodner had no running water, was often surrounded by mud and walked on floors in disrepair.
These were not five-star accommodations. Bodner couldn’t have been happier.
“Being home now, I definitely would have liked to stay on the trip longer,” Bodner said as she spent a half hour discussing her journey to Tanzania, an impoverished country in eastern Africa, where she took part in a service program for high school students run by Global Leadership Adventures.
Bodner spent her time teaching classes to fourth graders, painting classrooms and doing other school repair. Her students treated Bodner with the same rock-star status she might demonstrate if Serena Williams visited one of her Ridgefield practices.
“You would just be walking through the markets and everyone was smiling and they would say karibu, which means welcome,” Bodner said. “We didn’t meet a single person that didn’t have a smile. Some would stare because we are all different. We would do the same 20-minute walk to the school every morning and pass the same people sitting in their shops, and they all knew that we were there to teach and to help so they were very much receptive.”
To fully appreciate Bodner’s beneficence, you first have to appreciate her complete affinity for children. She spent the school year nannying four days a week for two to five hours a day.
“Most of my grade knows how much I love kids,” Bodner said with a smile. “They all call me Mom.”
While those classmates understandably have no idea yet on a career path, Bodner has had hers mapped out for eight years.
“When I was in second grade I asked my first grade teacher if I could intern for her when I was a senior, and I still plan on doing it,” Bodner said. “I’ve always loved teaching and kids.”
Bodner took her first service trip last summer to Cambodia, inspired by two older sisters who also spent part of their summers giving back to improve the lives of less fortunate children. It was a transformative experience for Bodner.
“I wanted to be with kids and I wanted to go as far away as possible to be in a completely different setting and lifestyle,” Bodner said. “I found the Cambodia program and fell in love with it.”
Bodner decided to take another trip this summer and chose Tanzania over Thailand for an alternative setting. Students must pay their own way to participate and Bodner expressed sincere appreciation for her parents’ support.
“People are very confused; they say why would you pay so much to do something like that, but it’s such a great experience that you really can’t put a price on that and I’m very thankful that my family could afford to send me on it,” Bodner said.
Bodner’s typical day was not what you would expect during summer break.
“During the school week we woke up about 6:15 and had breakfast and showered and then you went to school at eight and taught two classes, each for 45 minutes, and then you had recess with the kids and then we would do service work for two hours,” Bodner said. “That ranged anywhere from working on a special education school or painting or fixing broken floors. We even fixed broken desks. Basically anything that the school needed. Then we would head back to our home base for lunch and then we would have some sort of cultural immersion. We had a woman with HIV and AIDS talk to us one day and then a woman about female genital mutilation came. Some days we went to the high school and we would learn history.”
Early on the volunteers got material and a seamstress made them custom clothing. And there was sightseeing. Bodner hiked the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, went to two waterfalls and said the highlight was a two-day safari.
“I felt like I was in the Lion King,” Bodner said.
But unsurprisingly, Bodner said the lasting memories was her time with the children.
“Everyone in town knew where we were staying and there was an alleyway next to us and the local kids, whether they were in our class or not, would stand outside and yell for us to come play with them,” Bodner said. “Whenever we had some free time we went to the alleyway with the kids.”
Bodner, coming from the many advantages in Ridgefield, was touched by how the kids she taught got so much out of so little.
“I wish there was more I could do for them but it was so incredible to see the kids laughing and so happy playing soccer in the fields with crumbled up trash and things like that,” she said.
Internships are as important for students to discover possible career paths that turn out to be unappealing.
“This trip was definitely different for each of us,” Bodner said. “I walked away being excited about teaching in the future but there were a lot of kids who walked away saying I could never be a teacher. To me it’s rewarding when that one kid who was super shy would stand up and then get the answer right. They had a chant they would say when they got it right and you could see their faces light up.”
Bodner said she cried when she said goodbye to her students. She admitted her return to Ridgefield was tempered by her memories even as she was excited to see family and friends.
Ten days after returning, Bodner left Saturday for a trip to Italy, this time for a restful vacation.
“I would travel year-round if I could,” she said.
Bodner said she will not take a trip next summer because it will be her last one before college. But she still plans on being a first grade teacher and returning to spread happiness to children in third world countries. Programs like Teach For America and the Peace Corps figure prominently in her future plans.
Either group would be extremely fortunate to have Rachel Bodner as an ambassador.