Arts/Culture
3:23 pm
Fri June 18, 2010

Merze Tate Travel Club opens doors (slideshow)

Kids can learn a lot about a place through books, television, and the web. But one Kalamazoo woman thinks you can't really know a place or its people, unless you go and visit, which is why she started a travel club.

About twenty girls and several adults board an Amtrak train in Kalamazoo. "We're going on a mystery train ride with the travel club," exclaims travel club member Claire Khabeiry. Like a lot of kids in the group she's never been on train before.

"Right now we are in a train and it feels like we're going backwards because the seats are turned and we're seeing lot's of trees and a few rows of cars, and construction areas."

On today's mystery trip, they were traveling just one stop over to Battle Creek, where they will visit several monuments for the Underground Railroad, Sojourner Truth's burial place, and a historical museum.

Club founder Sonya Hollins floats down the aisle chatting with the girls in their seats.

"You're going to learn a lot today! When you get back on this train you're going to be a whole new person, you're going to be a historian about Battle Creek history."

Sonya Hollins is a journalist by trade and she started the girls travel club two years ago, somewhat unintentionally. Hollins had been researching a historical figure for a book she was going to write. That woman was Merze Tate.

Tate grew up in west Michigan the only black student in her class. Tate graduated with honors from Western Michigan University and later was the first African-American to graduate from Oxford University in 1932. Tate traveled the globe as a writer, and eventually became a teacher at an all-black high school in Indiana.While there Tate started a travel club for her students.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, when Sonya Hollins was flipping through the paper and an article caught her eye, about how to keep kids in school.

"I thought traveling would be an awesome opportunity to get kids excited about the world around them and to expose them to some careers and people who have traveled and it would open their mind to the possibilities out there."

So, inspired by what she read about Merze Tate, Hollins got some help from friends along with a $1,000-dollar grant, and created the Merze Tate travel club.

Originally the club was for African American girls. But since that time, Hollins has opened-it-up to girls of all races. Hollins says she realized we all live in this world together and we need to learn how to travel and be friends, together.

Since then, the club has toured the state capitol and had dinner with local politicians. They've studied quilting with experts and learned how to make and can applesauce. On one trip the girls visited Kalamazoo College. Hollins set it up so that the president of the college Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran was in the room when the girls arrived. For every trip the girls take a pre-quiz and a post-quiz.

"They didn't even know who she was in the room and the quiz was, is the president male or female, African American or Caucasian? I think a couple guessed she was African American. No one guessed she was a woman. Afterwards when I introduced her you could just see their eyes light up, like wow she's the president of this college.'"

Member Zoe Emones is a big fan of the travel club and she thinks all kids should have this kind of experience.

"So that they can learn more about their community and their state and country."

Emones insists kids can't learn this kind of stuff from a tv show, and that traveling makes things "seem more real."

The original plan was that the club would be around for one year. After all, Hollins didn't have a staff or a building or even much money. But at the end of its first year, all the parents and all of the kids asked her, "What are we doing next year?"