After a year dancing, singing and doing volunteer work in eight nations from the Philippines to Finland, Katie Walker has taken a job promoting the organization that made it possible, Up with People.
Walker, 22, is a legacy Up with People performer. Her parents, Lee and Debbie Walker, met while touring North America and Europe as musicians in an Up with People band in 1984-1985. Now, they’re all playing a role in bringing Up with People to Statesboro for a week of service and performance in March 2013.
Long before “Glee,” even before “Fame,” there was “Up with People,” which like those shows was a pop culture phenomenon during its time.
But in addition to a high-energy musical touring company, the Up with People recipe mixes in a dash of student exchange program and a cupful of Peace Corps-like purpose. Touring U.S. states and traveling to other countries from Europe to Asia, the cast numbering around 100 young people, ages 18-29, rooms with host families and works in community service projects before capping each week with a stage show.
This way of seeing the world offers a closer view of local life than tourist travel, as Walker attests from her two stays in Mexico.
“We stayed with the host families so you get the, like, super-authentic Mexican food,” she said. “And there’s a bunch of kids and adults who speak English there, so it was fun being able to communicate with them about their way of living and just different cultural traditions that they have.”
Up with People is organized as an educational nonprofit corporation. Its tours are scheduled in semesters, and student performers or their parents pay tuition, similar to college. Most students participate for only one semester, but Walker signed up for a second. She returned home June 12 from Mexico City, the last venue on her full year with Up with People.
During her first semester, the cast played cities in Minnesota, Ohio, South Dakota and Colorado before flying to Mexico and then the Philippines.
Last semester, they toured in New Mexico and Arizona, flew to Europe for shows and cultural experiences in Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and wrapped up in Mexico. Guadalajara, a city of 1.5 million people that’s capital of the state of Jalisco, was included on both Mexican itineraries. Otherwise, the first semester featured Mazatlán and other places on the Pacific coast, and only the second semester included Mexico City.
Reviewing her travels, Walker sounded more interested in the time she spent in the developing nations – Mexico and the Philippines – than in wealthier northern Europe.
“You get a better experience there,” she said, before adding that the European countries, especially Belgium, were beautiful.
In the Philippines, Up with People cast members did some cleanup work and planted trees. Walker also learned to cut hair. Cast members played with the children in GK Baseco, a previously burned-over slum neighborhood in Manila where the Philippine-based antipoverty foundation Gawad Kalinga has built concrete houses for residents, replacing fire-prone shanties.
In exchange for living in the new houses, families are required to maintain them, and the children have to attend school.
“Right beside it is, like really awful slums and they have what’s called the beach, and there’s a body of water, but what they call the beach is like just like nothing but trash,” Walker said. “It’s like soft and bouncy because there’s just so much on the ground, but they go there and play and they have fun playing. It’s not fun to see, but you saw that they’re happy playing.”
A girl named Charllyn, 11, became her fast friend, and had Walker braid her hair over and over.
In Mexico, where the show and its eponymous theme song are “Viva la Gente,” cast members did more cleaning up and some painting, on occasion painting murals to cover graffiti.
In the U.S. and Europe, service projects are often school visits where cast members present a workshop or panel discussion for students. In Sweden, which has seen an influx of immigrants from the Middle East, performers conducted a workshop on immigration and related issues.
First, an internship
Up with People cast members can apply for honorary internships designed to build leadership skills. For the first six weeks of her second semester, Walker, who was primarily a dancer, interned with the show’s professional dance captain. Learning the “European medley” dance moves first, she taught them to the rest of the cast before they left for Europe.
The show keeps many of the same elements through a semester and longer, but varying numbers of songs are added in the language of the host country. And the show always has a multicultural, international flavor – featuring songs in languages other than the native tongue and English.
Also international, cast members typically hail from about 20 different countries, and around 70 percent of recent performers are from outside the United States, according to Dave Penny, Up with People’s director of cast operations.
Typically arriving with their host families on a Monday, student performers then spend Tuesday through Thursday on service projects before performing shows on the weekend.
Walker figured she performed in about 80 shows during the past year. These included smaller shows, as well as full shows with the entire cast. Using a musical backing track, subunits of the cast play mini-shows at places such as schools in the days leading up to a big show.
Now, a job
Walker, who had completed three years at Georgia Southern University before she left to tour with Up with People, still plans to finish her degree -- after taking at least one more year to travel.
This time, instead of paying tuition, she will be earning a paycheck while traveling, “which is awesome,” she said.
With a one-year commitment, she reported to the Up with People headquarters in Denver on Thursday to begin training for her job as a promotion representative.
Although she won’t travel as widely as the cast, she will go to several cities in the U.S. and abroad to promote the show and line up sponsorships and host families. She might even do that in Statesboro, where her parents are also putting Up with People organizers in touch with potential sponsors for a performance visit slated for March 4-11.
Sponsors contribute money that supplements student tuition in operating the program but receive the revenue from ticket sales, which they are encouraged to donate to local causes, Penny said.
Cast members would do local community service projects, which Debbie Walker suggests might involve the university and organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or the Boys & Girls Club. They could visit local schools and then play for the paying public on the weekend in the Statesboro High School auditorium.
“We’re looking for sponsors who want to make an impact in giving back to the community,” Debbie Walker said.