When teens from Hartland visit rural India this month, they will learn and communicate through photography.
Before this month ends, one dozen teens from Wisconsin will be at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, getting acquainted with at least 50 children who will gladly follow dirt paths two or more hours - one way, every day - to meet them.
Many will walk barefoot, from farms and hilltops, into Pragpur.
This village in the Kangra Valley of India is about 400 miles north of the opulent Taj Mahal. Visitors to the rural township come to buy shawls, quilts or jewelry after watching silversmiths and weavers at work in the town market.
The beauty of their wares contrasts with the rural area's rugged ways of life. Some homes have no electricity or running water.
"These kids really have no chance unless they speak English and can get into a university," said Lori Sra, trip coordinator. Children without shoes can't go to school, and without an education, there is little hope of escaping poverty.
Lori, two other adults and the Wisconsin students represent University Lake School, Hartland (near Milwaukee), and they will teach the children in India how pictures can speak as clearly and loudly as words.
The Wisconsin group and others from Georgia and Missouri will use 60 digital cameras donated by Nikon to communicate, educate and inspire as a part of the Children Learning International Cultures, or CLIC, Abroad program.
When is a photo worth 1,000 words? When it freezes a unique moment of life or reveals universal truths that words can't or don't need to express.
My friend and colleague Bhaskar Krishnamurthy of Kansas City, himself raised in a poor part of southern India, earned an engineering degree but now is a travel and cultural photographer who started CLIC Abroad three years ago.
"It has steadily grown bigger and attracted good attention," Krishnamurthy said. "We have a big road map ahead, involving many children."
He chooses remote parts of India where centuries-old customs are on the verge of dramatic transformation because of technology and the influx of contemporary life. U.S. visitors will teach the India children how to use digital cameras to show aspects of daily living: family and home, social customs and religious rituals.
"Even when they can't talk to each other, they seem to communicate very well" because of the photo project, said Sra, a mother of three.
Journalism professor Tom Grant of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Georgia, and two college students will make a documentary of the trip. The college provides the nation's only undergraduate degree in rural studies.
"It's a wonderful program, to teach children to see the world through fresh eyes," Grant said. U.S. students show photos of their life at home, too. "So even though they can't speak the same language, they can see each other's worlds and appreciate it for the beauty and wonder of it all."
Why involve Wisconsin students? Lori's husband, Jasbir Sra, is from a tiny village in northern India. The couple met Krishnamurthy about 10 years ago, through a mutual connection, when Krishnamurthy sought a sponsor for a photography trip to the Amazon rainforest. The Sras agreed, providing he give a trip presentation to children in Hartland. Krishnamurthy did this, and more.
That led to a friendship and the CLIC Abroad trips for students at University Lake, a highly interactive, college prep school for kindergartners through grade 12. The 2013 trip is the school's third involvement, and this year's $3,500 per traveler cost was defrayed through sales of T-shirts and chocolates, babysitting and other events.
The other adults in the group are Steve Tomasini, a science teacher, and Ron Smyczek, a chemistry teacher and the high school principal. The trip to India is one option of many for the 80 high schoolers to choose during spring break.
A close-to-home study might involve Wisconsin writers such as conservationist Aldo Leopold, or an examination of flight (with day trips to Oshkosh, Milwaukee and Chicago).
All spring-break options "instill a culture of service," Smyczek said. His school favors small class sizes (10 to 14 students) that encourage asking questions more than memorizing facts.
"The interchange of cultures has great value," he said. "We live in the same world - it may appear different, but look at all the commonalities."
The India-bound group packed hundreds of toothbrushes, tubes of toothpaste, combs and Matchbox cars as gifts. They will deliver a computer for a school in India, raised $500 to buy room coolers for an orphanage and donated $350 toward CLIC Abroad's purchase of 100 pairs of shoes.
"When students are selling candy for this, they don't quite get it," Lori said, regarding the rich cultural experience. "It all changes when we get there.
"I'm just hoping that we all learn how we need to be accepting of everyone - no matter where or how we live. It's not all about you - it's a big, big world out there."
? For more about CLIC Abroad at University Lake School, 4024 Nagawicka Road, Hartland: clicabroad.org, 262-367-6011. Donations to CLIC Abroad will defray the cost of equipment, supplies and teacher-student travel.
? For more about University Lake School: facebook.com/universitylakeschool, 262-367-6011. There also is a Facebook page for the two-week CLIC Abroad trip.