La Cañada has returned to Valley Forge, kicking off the 2019 student programs at Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
For decades, fifth graders from California’s La Cañada Elementary School have made the long cross-country trek to Freedoms Foundation, immersing themselves in historic sights and chatting up “founders” about liberty and freedom, rights and responsibilities, and the role the students will one day play in the nation’s future.
Teacher Corinne Ellis first learned about Freedoms Foundation’s programs in the 1970s and approached her principal, Don Hingst, about participating. He couldn’t have been more supportive, taking the lead on organizing the trips for years. Even after he retired he chaperoned, for La Cañada and its sister schools, Paradise Canyon and Palm Crest.
“He’s a history buff himself, and after he came that first time he just knew it was an experience you could never replace for the kids,” said Don’s daughter, Barb Drange, a fifth-grade teacher at La Cañada who now organizes the trips for 80 to 90 students a year.
The group visits the site of George Washington’s victory in Trenton, crosses the Delaware – on foot via bridge, tours historic Philadelphia, and gets a feel for the cold, wind-swept expanse of Valley Forge National Historical Park. In the evenings, back on the Freedoms Foundation campus, historical interpreters portraying Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founders offer their perspective of the Revolution and the nation’s beginnings.
“We get to stand where Washington stood rallying his troops,” Drange said. “Or sit in the pews of Christ Church, where Benjamin Franklin sat, and where you can see the font used for William Penn’s baptism.”
Independence Hall never fails to inspire. “We always have the kids recite part of the Declaration when we’re there,” she said. “And it brings tears to my eyes every time they stand up there and repeat what the Founding Fathers declared.”
Students are well prepared by their teachers for what they will see and experience, and ready to challenge guides and interpreters along the way. (When “Jefferson” opened the floor for questions during the February 2018 visit, the first was, How could the author of “All men are created equal” own slaves?)
“We use a lot of technology in the classroom to give them a taste of what they’ll experience,” Drange said, “but one of the reasons they get into the trip is that, once here, they are pulled away from their screens and can live what is happening.”
With the trips always scheduled for winter, it’s not unusual for students to follow in Washington’s footsteps on a day with sleet and snow in the forecast. “People think we’re crazy to come at this time of year,” Drange said, “but if you cross the Delaware in the cold you appreciate more what Washington and his troops did, or what they experienced at Valley Forge. Besides, it’s good for California kids to experience something besides warm weather.”
One of those California kids who came as a fifth grader – Barb’s daughter Kelsey – returned last year as a chaperone.
“It really makes a lasting impact, to feel the cold and imagine what the men had to endure,” said Kelsey, who is continuing the family legacy by working on her master’s in education. “A lot of those soldiers didn’t have shoes, or warm coats, and still they persevered. And if not for them, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today.”
Jenny Franz first came on the trip as a student and by 2018 was making her 12th trip as a chaperone – on her first, Kelsey was one of the fifth graders. Franz is still moved by the historic sites and the students’ reactions to it all.
“I just love it,” she said. “I love watching the kids, watching the light bulb turn on when they connect what I’ve talked about in the classroom with what they are seeing and experiencing in real life.”
The consistent quality of the programs help make return visits worthwhile. “The places we visit are wonderful, the interpreters are fabulous, and the programs are so well organized and run,” Franz said. “Freedoms Foundation does a great job keeping the kids happy and comfortable.”
For some students, it’s their first time away from home or even their first plane ride. “It’s a good chance for them to grow socially and emotionally,” Barb Drange said. “They learn to get themselves up, get where they’re supposed to be on time. We have plenty of adults on hand, but it’s really a chance for them to take responsibility for themselves. And we often hear from parents afterward how their kids have changed.” Parents are so enthusiastic about the trip that there are always many more volunteers for chaperones than are needed.
Principal Emily Blaney shares that enthusiasm. “This trip is worth all of the time and effort Barb puts into organizing because the students gain so much,” she said. “They become such great consumers of information. They also learn to live together for a week, eating, sleeping, learning and having fun with one another. Valley Forge is something they never forget, and this year’s trip was extra exciting because we shared our day in Philadelphia with close to a million Eagles fans!”
Drange appreciates the support, both for what the trip means to the students and what it has meant to her family.
“This program was started by my dad and he loved it,” she said. “So it’s really special to me to be able to keep it going.”
Keep up with Freedoms Foundation news and events here.