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Lake Mills FFA students realize dream, travel to Australia, New Zealand

By Jean Caspers-Simmet
simmet@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 06/20/2013 10:37 AM

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LAKE MILLS, Iowa —Eight Lake Mills FFAers, eight parents and agriculture instructor and advisor Darcie Gayken flew out of Minneapolis bound for New Zealand and Australia last week. It's a journey that started as a dream four years ago.

"My freshmen at the time, who are now seniors, said they wanted to go on a big trip," Gayken said. "Two years ago, I told them that they'd be graduating in two years, and if they wanted to do a big trip and were willing to put in the time and work to raise the money, we could do it. I don't think that they believed me until I showed them the information from Education First Educational Tours and told them to pick a trip."

The traveling students are in 8th to 12th grade, and each had to raise $4,500 for the 13-day trip. Parents are paying their own costs.

Students organized corn drives and built "the Walkabout Grill," which they took to community events where they grilled beef and pork shish-kabobs and hot dogs and sold soft drinks.

Members grilled at Borderfest in Emmons, Minn., the Winnebago County Fair in Thompson and July Jubilee and National Night Out in Lake Mills. The trailer grill also is available for FFA members to use. One senior used it for his graduation open house with FFA members helping.

They also had two extra fruit sales, a silent auction and a car wash. Jake's Sweet Corn in Thompson donated 38 dozen ears of sweet corn, which they grilled.

The students raised $28,000.

"The last two years have been a journey," Gayken said.

Students got passports and visas, and Gayken had them telephone the embassy to make sure that their visas were in order.

"There were a lot of skills gained through the process," Gayken said. "They learned a lot about budgeting."

Originally 19 to 20 students said they wanted to make the trip, but the group got smaller over time.

"That's to be expected," Gayken said. "They had to figure out what their priorities were."

Gayken and her FFA chapter organize a camping trip each year. They've gone to northern Minnesota, Wyoming and to sites along the Mississippi River.

One reason Gayken's students may have chosen to visit Australia and New Zealand is because she often talked about her time spent in the Australian Outback. She spent seven months working on a 500-sow farrow to finish farm through the International Agriculture Exchange. She also participated in a three-week volunteer project in Uzbekistan through the U.S. Agency for International Development when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Gayken's hope is that her students come back with a better appreciation for the world around them.

"Too often we don't think beyond our hometown and state," Gayken said. "I hope that they become more aware that there are so many more people who are different and to be able to embrace those differences. They may not like their viewpoints but they need to respect them."

She tells her students it's okay to dream big.

"Who says you can't do it," she said. "It may take you longer to save the money, but that doesn't mean you can't do it. My mom always says, 'If there's a will, there's a way.'"

Katie Fell, who will be a junior, said it will be her first time on an airplane. Her parents Mike and Nancy also are going. She's looking forward to seeing kangaroos, koala bears and visiting the Great Barrier Reef and a crocodile farm.

"The last four days we'll stay in Cairns (Australia), which is right by the ocean," Fell said.

Alec Anderson, who will be a sophomore, said he could hardly believe that they were going.

"I was shocked when Miss Gayken told us we'd met our fundraising goal," Anderson said. "We sold a lot of shish-kabobs. We'd ask people if they wanted pork or beef, and then we'd oink and moo. It made it fun."

His mother, Denise, is going on the trip.

Gayken, who has taught at Lake Mills for six years, will not be returning in the fall. She'll start classes later in June at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn., where she plans to earn an mechanical engineering degree.

Both Fell and Anderson are sorry that Gayken is leaving Lake Mills.

"She is awesome," Fell said.

"She is a lot of fun," Anderson said. "We're hoping this big trip she started becomes something we do every four years."

Lake Mills students will post updates on Facebook and are planning a community meeting when they return to talk about their trip.