How long would it take to travel 50,000 miles, visit 50 states and interview 50 governors?
About 50 weeks, if you're 12-year-old Amy Burritt. An itinerary like this would intimidate any seasoned traveler, but this determined young lady didn't let that stand in her way. When Amy's parents told her she would be learning about American history first-hand by driving across the United States, she thought they were crazy. But the family worked hard to realize their dream and the experience paid off.
Kurt and Emily Burritt, homeschooling parents in Traverse City, Michigan, strive to give their children, Amy and Jon, the most authentic, hands-on education possible. "If they learn it from television they really don't get a feel of what this country is all about," says Kurt.
Undertaking such a unique endeavor demanded total commitment from Kurt and Emily. They sold their share of the family business, rented their house to strangers, and moved into a 34-foot motor home. "We're 100-percent people," says Kurt who considers his total abandon to his children's education an extension of a commitment he made to God. "I like to make sure my kids understand that they have parents who will support them 100 percent."
Setting goals at a level reasonable enough for the children to attain, yet high enough to derive work from them, is important to the Burritts. "They need to see that if they work hard they can achieve things," says Kurt, stressing the importance of "giving kids a challenge and helping them to convert it into a goal so they take ownership of it." By helping children achieve their goals, he is convinced parents complete an invaluable step toward preparing them for success at any level in life.
A Learning Challenge
"After about two hours in the car, [children] have seen all they want to see. We knew that we had to give Amy something to focus on, to challenge her so that she could see a reason to move forward," he says.
"We wanted to challenge her mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and educationally. That meant taking her out of her comfort zone." Kurt and Emily set one venturous but attainable goal for Amy: interview the governor of every state. Her younger brother Jon would help by assisting with the project. Amy agrees with her parents' method: "If I had never met all the governors, the trip would have been difficult. Having a goal helps you concentrate on what you really want to accomplish."
Amy's travels began in New York City where she visited Grand Central Station, Broadway, and Wall Street, and made friends with homeless kids. While traveling through New England she visited Bunker Hill (a battlefield of the Revolutionary War), Plymouth Plantation (the first permanent European settlement), and Boston Harbor where colonists disguised as Indians dumped 342 chests of tea into the ocean. The sights left a deep impression on her. "I'm very grateful for what our ancestors and founding fathers did for our country. Reality sinks in when you're seeing these places and standing where these people fought and died."
A day at the White House provided a first-hand account of how a bill becomes a law. Visits to Jamestown, Civil War battlefields, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Hawaiian Islands taught her a profound lesson about her homeland: America is a country of diversity and contrasts.
Amy was learning life lessonsAmy found that the academic lessons she was learning were life lessons to be enjoyed. While staying at various campgrounds she interacted with people from all walks of life - some have become friends. But the lessons weren't always easy. She endured rejection from governors who were too busy to meet with her, and she experienced the pain of separation from childhood friends. In interview after interview she gained confidence and poise, learning that she had nothing to lose by trying, and everything to gain.
Amy realized the importance of her mission when a rainy, disappointing Easter in Alaska left her tearfully begging to go home. Her mother explained gently, "We could quit. We could just pack it all up and go home right now." But this was not the message Kurt and Emily wanted to convey to their children. They wanted Amy and Jon to understand that they can reach their goals even when it gets difficult. God challenges us not to give in to adversity.
After serious soul searching, Amy wrote a new resolution in her journal: "From that point on, I was going to take charge. I realized it was my project, and I would reach my goal, no matter how difficult things were." During that crucial turning point, she decided to expand her goal. "I knew arranging a meeting with the President was nearly impossible, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from trying. The worst thing that could happen was that the President would say no. I could live with that. I might not have believed that philosophy a few months before, but on this trip I was learning that not trying was the worst thing I could do." Amy's journey took her to the floor of the Republican National Convention in California where she met Bob Dole, the Republican Presidential nominee.
Business as Usual?
When Amy wrapped up her year-long project, the Burritts didn't simply return to business as usual.
"I don't think anything will ever be the same - in a good way," says Amy. The rest of the family agrees. Besides writing two books, My American Adventure and The Extreme Dream Journal (published by Zondervan), Amy has appeared on CNN, C-Span, and The Today Show, and has toured the country inspiring young people to strive for their goals. "I have a concept I call GAP: The G stands for goals, the A for accomplishments and the P for purpose. You need to set goals. You need to work hard to accomplish them and if you know your purpose in life, what other people do and say won't have an effect on you negatively."
Amy's success story has prompted many parents to call Kurt and Emily to seek homeschooling tips and child-rearing advice. "I don't think you have to have naturally motivated children to motivate them," says Kurt, stressing that the key thing he has learned in home schooling is to focus on the child's needs. "Education is not helping a kid learn so she can make a living; it's helping a kid learn so she can make a life. You're building a person more than building a mind." When planning the project, he considered who Amy is as an individual and found out what makes her tick.
The most frequent question parents ask is whether they should take on a similar venture. "When you have something that you want to do, you need to know that you know that it's something you're supposed to do," says Kurt, stressing that the real message to Christians is to discover what God wants you to do and let Him guide you. "My parents knew from the very beginning that this was something that God wanted them to do for us," says Amy, who grew 10 years in one. "It doesn't take a person in an important position to accomplish something. Anybody can do anything if they set their mind to it. Even a teenager.
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