KALAMAZOO (MICH.)- Natasha Mahonie, a junior at Loy Norrix High School, will be the only African American student in Michigan headed to France this summer as an exchange student with the 20-year-old AFS-USA Faces of America Program (afsusa.org). Thanks to the Greg Jennings Foundation, Mahonie, along with friend and fellow youth travel writer, Claire Khabeiry, will be the first International Travel Writers of the Merze Tate Travel Club. The $8,500 contribution from the Greg Jennings Foundation allows for matching funds to be raised that would provide travel for the two travel writers to have an experience of a lifetime.
The two reporters will leave New York on June 23, to serve as international reporters for the Kalamazoo-based girls travel club during the 30-day cultural arts-focused program in France. As they participate in a strenuous language study program they also will learn of the historic sites and culture with other students from around the world. The travel writers will create stories and produce a video of their first international experience to share with youth groups in their community to inspire them to travel outside their comfort zones.
“I am scared. France is so far way, but excited. It really hit me that we were going when we got our passports,” said Mahonie who has been a member of the Merze Tate Travel Club since the fifth grade. When she joined the club in 2009, Claire Khabeiry joined at the same time. They learned they attended the same school and instantly became friends. Over the past seven years the students have experienced together with the Travel Club, their first train and plane rides, visited dozens of places near and far, and created a documentary on the life of Merze Tate.
Khabeiry said that as they grew older, some of their friends teased them about remaining a part of the Travel Club. But, she didn’t let that stop her from participating.
“Those same kids who teased me, now see that I am going to France. I’m glad I didn’t let peer pressure stop me,” she said.
The girls are still raising funds for their trip as family and community members contribute checks, host fund-raising events and donate on their GoFundMe page (www.merzetate.com).
“We are working hard to make sure these girls can attend this trip together,” said Sonya Bernard-Hollins who is a journalist and founder of the Merze Tate Travel Club. “It has been a dream of mine to get girls traveling around the world as travel writers. Thanks to the Jennings Foundation, we are seeing that dream come alive.”
The Merze Tate Travel Club was founded in 2008, by Bernard-Hollins when she learned of Merze Tate while working as a reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette. She learned that Tate, a native of Blanchard, Michigan and 1927 graduate of Western Michigan University, couldn’t get a job teaching in Michigan because she was African American. Tate was then offered a job at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Ind., as a history teacher. While there she started a Travel Club where she took as many as 40 students at a time to such places as Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and Niagara Falls.
Tate left secondary education to attend Oxford University in England where she was the first African American graduate in 1935. She went on to travel the world, twice, spoke five languages, was an inventer, expert in disarmament, author, and university professor who left millions to such universities as WMU.