French students raise $15k to meet Guadeloupe pen-pals

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Jake Seltman’s French 3 class raised almost $15,000 in order to travel to the French-speaking island of Guadeloupe to meet their pen-pals next week. (Photo courtesy Jake Seltmen)

Antonio Blackwell has barely been out of the city limits. Shawn Kenney and Curtis Brown are about to fly on their first airplane. Ammad Allen is excited to find out exactly what “culture shock” is.

And Andre Williams, along with the other four students, have never stepped foot outside of the United States.

All of that will change on June 15 when these five Oliver High School seniors set out for Guadeloupe, a French-speaking territory in the Caribbean, with their French 3 teacher, Jake Seltman.

In Guadeloupe, they will climb a volcano, go kayaking and finally get to meet the pen-pals with whom they’ve corresponded for a year.

What’s more, the students raised all of the money for the trip themselves: a total of $14,750.  

“This is my first time out of the country,” Allen said. “[We will be] experiencing a new culture, it’s our chance to test our skills and the language, I can’t wait.”

They will arrive in Pointe-á-Pitre, Guadeloupe at 9:30 p.m. June 15, and will travel to Hostel Le Relax in Morne- á-l’Eau where they will reside for the first three days.

After some sight-seeing and a kayak-tour through Pointe Cana and Pointe Sable, the group will gear up for their weekend with their pen-pals and their host families, where they will stay for the remainder of the trip.

The students will spend the majority of their day Friday at Tapeur Zip Line Adventure Park in Route de la Traversée with their pen-pals, and will then travel to Ste Anne to stay with their host families.

Other activities planned for the students and their host families include a trip to Beach Ste Anne (Bourg), a trip to Grands Fonds: veg and Rastafarian culture, a visit to a local school in Ste Anne and an excursion to Basse Terre where they will hike a volcano.

While Kenney and Blackwell are most nervous about leaving their families for ten days, Brown is most nervous about climbing the volcano.

“They say it’s really hot once you start to hike it, and as you start to get higher it gets really cold,” Brown said.

Each of the five students will also be equipped with a Flip camcorder to document their trip.

Seltman will also assign a “leader of the day” among the students who will be responsible for updating the blog, taking and posting pictures on the website, as well as adding their own perspective thoughts.

There will also be a “word of the day”, and a “quote of the day” included on the website.

While the group is in Guadeloupe, they will also sort out some more details for the trip next spring in which the Guadeloupe pen-pals will travel to Pittsburgh to visit.

On Thursday, June 23, Seltman and his students will depart Ste Anne and head back to Pittsburgh.

Their French teacher, Seltman, lived in Guadeloupe for a year while teaching English and learning French. He also corresponded with a pen-pal who helped him learn the language.

When Seltman came to Oliver High School two years ago to teach French, he brought the pen-pal idea with him.

“It’s been an incredible experience. My students are really, really motivated,” Seltman said.

“Originally I had a group of young men excited about learning French, it motivated me to work harder. It’s such an inspiration to see their initiative and what they put forth towards their goal.”

Seltman said that Oliver High School was supportive of the trip as long as he and the students supplied the funds and were able to make it work.

They began fundraising in October and by March, had met their goal of $13,000. Since then, Seltman and his students raised an additional $1,750, which they will use to start a foundation for next year’s trip.

The students said that the fundraising started out slow and was difficult in the beginning, but when they began selling items at school, their mission gained speed.

The fundraising included, selling “PGH 412” wristbands at Heinz Field, concession stands at Oliver’s basketball games and selling beads for Mardi Gras.

Seltman and his students also created a website dedicated to their trip that features a homemade video, a blog and a link for ways to donate. Seltman said that an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also inspired people to donate.

“All of the community involvement really helped to make their dream a reality,” he said.

The breadwinner of the fundraisers, however, came from the sold-out Caribbean benefit dinner at Bistro Soul on East Ohio Street, featuring a Creole chef, raffles, and a presentation about Guadeloupe. In the end, the event raised a solid $2,500 for the trip.

“One of our biggest accomplishments was the dinner,” Curtis Brown said. “Everybody from the community, people we didn’t know, some teachers and families came, there were 87 people. It was fun raising the money.”

FedEx and Kinko’s also helped by donating passport pictures and luggage to the students for their trip.

“As we move forward, our goal is to get bigger donations,” Seltman said. “Over 200 people were donating an average of $100, so hopefully we will be able to document it all and put together larger grant proposals in the future.”

“I’m proud of all of us for sticking with it,” Kenney said. “This type of thing doesn’t usually happen in our community. It’s a big example of ‘if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish it.’ If you are surrounded by the right people and you have a good teacher who tells the truth, you can do it.”

Ashley Goodsell graduated from Point Park University this year with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She was co-sports editor for Point Park’s newspaper and plans on attending graduate school for communications or advertising.

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