If it wasn't for Up with People, Katie Walker might not even be around. Over the next six months, she will tour a portion of the world as part of the same musical stage show that brought her parents together.
The perky blend of performance, travel and educational experience called Up with People was an international sensation a generation ago. Katie's parents, Lee and Debbie Walker, met as members of an Up with People band in 1984.
Debbie Moline had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, having played saxophone in her college and high school bands. When her mother accompanied her to an Up with People show in their hometown of La Crosse, Wis., Debbie heard the call for would-be cast members. Interviews were held immediately after the show. Meanwhile, Lee Walker, who had two years of junior college behind him in Brunswick, Ga., discovered Up with People and signed up to play trumpet.
From June 1984 through June 1985, they toured 14 states, two Canadian provinces and seven European countries.
"I was from Wisconsin. He was from Georgia. We met in Arizona. We traveled the world and here we are," Debbie says, laughing to sum up her family life so romantically.
But it fits. She and Lee hit it off right away while training with the Up with People cast in Tucson. Then, as part of the 150-member touring company, they would take a gondola ride in the canals of Venice, travel by train through the Alps, go to horse races at Ascot, where the Queen and Princess Diana were in attendance, and even perform as an "opening act" for the pope.
The cast's recurring convergence with the late Pope John Paul II actually began during the Canadian phase of their tour in September 1984. That's when the pope visited Canada and Up with People was chosen, along with some Canadian school children, to welcome him at the Ottawa airport.
"We were just supposed to sing for a few minutes and he was supposed to leave, but he was so amazing because he spent about 30 minutes just greeting everybody from our cast, and he spoke 12 different languages and so he spoke the different languages to the different people," Debbie recalls.
The following spring, when the European portion of the cast's travels gave them about a six-week stay in Italy, about half that time was spent in Rome. One Wednesday morning, the young people from 17 countries set up their equipment and performed on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica prior to one of the pope's Wednesday sermons.
Opening a big album of keepsakes, Debbie produced a photo of the cast setting up on those unmistakable steps. A photo of her and Lee in the gondola is also kept there, along with many others from an unforgettable tour.
Lee and Debbie married in 1987 and settled in Statesboro, where he completed his education at Georgia Southern, becoming a nurse practitioner. She taught middle school and founded the Teaching Tree, which she sold in 2005, and is now a temporary instructor in the GSU College of Education. Neither became a professional entertainer.
But Lee directs the two handbell choirs at their church, First United Methodist, and acts and directs in community theater, including recent plays at the Averitt Center. He was Jud in "Oklahoma," the father in "Bye Bye Birdie," and music director for "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." He has reportedly been cast as a father again for this summer's production of "Hairspray."
Over the years, the Walkers' three children — Katie, who will be 21 this month, Ashley, 17, and Matthew, 12 — have been steeped in Up with People memories much the way that other kids hear about mom and dad's college road trips and summer camps. Some financial planning has even gone into the possibility of carrying on the tradition.
"Oh, yes. I've joked that I didn't do a college fund for the kids, but I have done an Up with People fund," Debbie said. "But I wanted them to want to do it themselves."
Every five years the Walkers attend an Up with People cast reunion. There, the children of alumni stage shows for the families. Katie has performed as a singer, dancer and emcee, most recently in 2004 and 2009.
"Poor Katie, who's never missed one," Mom teased her.
Like the Up with People program itself, the cast reunion shows celebrate cultural diversity. The children learn songs in different languages, and 2009's reunion show included a sign language song.
Reunion shows haven't been the only venue for Katie, who danced with Southern Dance Academy from age 4 to 18. She also sang and danced in "High School Musical" at the Averitt Center in 2009 and performs in her church's college-age handbell choir, directed by her father.
Katie completed an Up with People application in April, followed by a 30-40 minute phone interview. She was accepted to tour internationally in the second semester of 2011.
"I've always known what it was, and I've always thought it would be fun, so I'm finally getting my chance," she said.
While Katie has no plans of becoming a performing artist, she is preparing for a career in fashion. She has completed three years at Georgia Southern, where her major is Fashion Merchandising and Apparel Design. Up with People will give her a gap-year experience prior to her senior year.
She reports to the Up with People home base, which is now in Denver, on July 8. After one month of training, the cast will tour for about five months. They are slated to perform in Colorado, South Dakota, Minnesota and Ohio, traveling by bus in the U.S. before a flight to Mexico, where they will perform and do community service work for seven weeks before flying to the Philippines for five to six weeks there.
Cast members are not paid, but rather pay for the experience. Katie's first semester tuition would cost $14,250, except that she gets an automatic $1,000 scholarship for having been referred by alumni (her parents), and was nominated by an Up with People Alumni Association board member for a special scholarship that will cover 25 percent of the total.
The organization encourages students to raise money toward tuition, and Katie has written letters to friends and family asking for their help. She hopes to raise enough money to commit to a second semester, the first half of 2012, when the tour is slated to include travel in Europe, as well as more states and another visit to Mexico. If she commits to the full year before starting her tour, the second semester will cost $5,550.
Unlike her mom and dad, who were band members, Katie will be a singer and dancer in the cast. Other aspects of the experience should be similar. Cast members travel with a single suitcase and stay with host families wherever they go, even during the month of pre-tour preparation. Along the way they will do community service projects, such as working with children or helping with improvements to homes or community buildings.
They stay one week in each city, usually putting on the show at the end of their stay.
But other aspects have changed. The truth is, Up with People almost wasn't around for Katie. Founded in 1965, the organization fielded five separate casts simultaneously in year-long tours by the time Katie's parents were enrolled. It continued in that vein until 2000, when financial troubles forced Up with People to cease operations.
After reorganization, tours resumed in 2005, but there is now only one cast at a time, each beginning with a half-year commitment and the option of a second semester. Classified as a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit, Up with People now seeks sponsorships from local groups, especially for the U.S. portion of its tours. The sponsors pay to have the show appear locally, and ticket proceeds then go to a designated local charity, explained Eric Lentz, senior vice president of Up with People.
Tuition, Lentz asserts, doesn't even cover travel expenses.
"What they pay for the program covers less than half of what it actually costs them to travel, so we raise money from our alumni base, we have the scholarship fund," he said. "We get a lot of in-kind donations, and then we also raise money on the tour through sponsorships that cover our operational expenses in every tour city."
More than half of new cast members learn about the program from alumni, whom Lentz calls "our Number 1 recruiters." But true second-generation performers such as Katie are rarer. According to data Lentz provided, 9 percent of cast members are the children of alumni, but there is no information on how many have two Up with People parents.
Katie already has one friend in the cast she is joining. She met Max LaCoste of Montreal, Canada, at the 2009 reunion. His mother toured with her parents in 1984-'85.