Jai Ho: A service destiny | ParkRecord.com

Jai Ho: A service destiny

Alisha Self, Of the Record staff

Mary Johnson and Tara Keene have never been the type to adhere to the norm.

So while their peers spend the summer preparing to head off to college or take on the job market, Johnson and Keene have a different plan in the works. The 18-year-olds have formulated a mission to travel this summer to a secluded village in Himachal Pradesh, India, to volunteer with the Real Gap Experience program.

"I want to do something different from the norm," says Johnson, explaining why she has chosen to defer college in favor of humanitarian service. She was hoping to travel to Africa this summer as part of a school service club, but when funding fizzled, it was up to Johnson to find an alternative on her own.

Meanwhile, Keene was considering joining the Peace Corps, but wasn’t sure if she wanted to commit to more than two years abroad. "I want to try something a little more short-term first," she says.

The girls, who have been friends since Johnson moved to Park City six years ago, began to look at different service programs and locations together. Keene’s dad has traveled through India on business trips and his admiration for the region sparked the girls’ interest.

They discovered the Real Gap Experience and "it just seemed right," says Johnson.

Recommended Stories For You

Real Gap offers projects and gap year travel ideas in more than 40 countries. As part of the program, Johnson and Keene will volunteer in orphanages, childcare centers and schools in a village in the Himalayas working with underprivileged children. They will also learn how to cook traditional Indian food and take lessons in the native language.

Although their exact itinerary is still up in the air, the girls are committed to the project and have already begun to raise money and to research Indian customs and culture. "I’m really excited to completely immerse myself in their way of life," says Johnson. "The people I admire most have traveled the world. I think everyone needs to experience different cultures."

"I think it’s good to get outside of yourself and see how other people live," adds Keene. Both girls acknowledge that their comfortable lives in Park City have sheltered them from what’s going on elsewhere in the world. "It will help us not take things for granted — we try not to, but everyone does," says Keene.

The girls hope to embark on their adventure in mid-July and volunteer with the program for at least a month.

However, there is one thing that lies in their way: the cost. In order to spend a month with the program, the girls need to raise $5,000 ($2,500 each). If they don’t raise/earn enough money in time to depart in July, they will aim for August and so on. "We are determined to go and if it takes a few months, we will wait," says Johnson.

The duo has crafted a marketing plan, "50 from 100," to make their feat more manageable. Johnson and Keene are asking for $50 from 100 people in order to pay for the trip. In exchange, they’re willing to do odd jobs such as babysitting, gardening or miscellaneous household projects.

The girls are acutely aware that tough economic times may work against them in requesting donations. "Even through we’re struggling a little bit here, the world is struggling so much more," says Johnson. Fifty dollars is by no means the minimum contribution, she notes.

Johnson and Keene have started a blog to recognize donors and update followers on the status of their fundraising. They also plan to blog during their trip to share their adventures from Himachal Pradesh. To follow the duo’s quest, visit http://helpusvolunteerindia.blogspot.com.

To find out more about the Real Gap Experience, visit http://www.realgap.com. Anyone interested in supporting the girls’ mission may contact them at taralkeene@yahoo.com or maryjohnson05@live.com . Donations may be sent to Mary Johnson, 1950 Parleys Loop, Francis, UT 84036.