When Anna Hoyt looks up at the stars, she thinks of her new friend Kelly, a teammate on a Global Explorers trip to the Grand Canyon in July. Kelly, 17, who is visually impaired, had never before seen the night sky clearly, due to the presence of city lights.
"Every time I look at the stars I image her seeing them for the first time and it makes them that much better," said Hoyt, a senior at Monte Vista High School. "I know I'll think about that trip every single day of my life because it's definitely something that wakes you up and makes you appreciate everything."
The team of 10 teens – five of them blind or visually impaired - was chosen from across the country and Canada to participate in the nine-month Leading the Way program. It aims at helping young people become true citizens of the world and understand that everyone has a role to play in making it better.
Hoyt's application began her journey of self-discovery.
"We had to write an essay saying our strengths and weaknesses as a leader and why we would be a good addition to the program," she recalled. "You don't really think about how you're going to be a leader."
After the team was assembled, the members began in January to become acquainted with each other via conference calls. They also did projects to introduce them to Grand Canyon history, desert ecology, leadership styles and service. In April, they met in Colorado for a weekend retreat where they learned guiding techniques from Erik Weihenmayer, a world-renowned blind adventurer.
"The unique part of this program is that team members prepare thoroughly for the adventure by studying the environment and culture," said Weihenmayer, "learning crucial techniques for navigating and flourishing in a rugged landscape, and developing the leadership and team work skills required to complete the journey.
The highlight of the program was the 16-day expedition to the Grand Canyon, where they rafted the upper half of the Colorado River, journeyed on trails near the river by foot, helped fix up a ranger station, and performed sound experiments.
"We actually recorded sounds, natural and unnatural, all part of research for noise pollution in the Grand Canyon," Hoyt explained. "All these helicopter rides are available in the Grand Canyon, and all the noise disturbs everyone else in the canyon. All these backpackers spend days trying to get to where they are to enjoy peaceful quietness, and then there are helicopters and airplanes. … We would sit there for half an hour or an hour recording sounds."
Living 16 days in the wilderness opened Hoyt's eyes in many ways, especially as she became acquainted with the teens that were visually impaired.
"There were four boys and six girls," said Hoyt. "Two were way more blind, one could see a little light perception in his right eye, another could tell shadows a little but not really. Others had no peripheral vision, one was color blind, another couldn't tell minute details far away."
She said one thing she learned is that the visually impaired people were different than she had imagined.
"It blew me away how much they could function without using their eyes," she said. "I personally depend on my eyes for everything."
She's a hiker and said she's become more aware of her surroundings and all that she can see while walking on Mount Diablo trials.
"We talked about struggles they went through, what they could do," Hoyt remembered. "It's incredible how people will perceive blind people - and what they're capable of. It was interesting because everybody saw things differently, so when guiding, you have to think, 'OK, how much guiding do they need?'"
"We did night hikes, when the visually impaired kids guided us," she added, "when it was pitch black, and when we would go in tunnels."
It was hot in the daytime but really cold at night, Hoyt said. They slept outdoors under the stars every night, during their time in the canyon and on the rim. When Kelly saw stars for the first time, recalled Hoyt, "She said, "I finally know what everyone is talking about.'"
Hoyt said although she is a runner and a hiker it was still different for her to spend so much time outdoors and never be indoors on her computer. Some of the kids had a big adjustment to life without cell phones, Hoyt noted, although she personally wasn't phased.
"We had a ceremony unhooking the cell phone and putting it in box," she recalled with a laugh. "One guy would always be texting with his cell phone - for a few days he kept twitching his fingers, it was such a habit."
Others missed their iPods, and it was a struggle for some girls to do without hair dryers and makeup, which was not allowed.
"It definitely saves time in the morning," Hoyt said with a laugh."
They weren't allowed to wear lotions or deodorant either because they attract mosquitoes and bugs.
"We were camping on the rim for five days, with layers of dirt all over you, you feel so gross," she said. "No matter how much you used baby wipes, you never got it off. We got used to walking around being gross from backpacking."
Hoyt was used to hiking and running on the Monte Vista cross country team so she could deal with sweat and dirt, she said. "But a lot of people were way more out of their comfort zone, being outside and getting dirty."
"By the end of eight days, we did not smell good. I took the most amazing shower of my life in between rim portion and river portion," she added. "That shower was a big highlight, we all agreed."
They took turns cooking and doing other camping chores. "We were a pretty happy group, we were a big family."
For the Colorado River trip, the group had six boats, each with a guide.
"They were all such characters," said Hoyt. "They were amazing. They knew everything about the Grand Canyon that there was to know." Plus one played the ultimate game of Frisbee with them on the beach.
"We rafted for eight days and stopped for hikes, lots of challenging hikes," she said. "It was pretty action-packed."
Arriving home in Alamo was also a transition.
"It was very shocking," she said. "It was very loud, I realized. I noticed very minute sounds I didn't think about before at home – airplanes, the AC going. It was really weird."
Plus she had to adjust to life without her new friends and all the inside jokes they'd shared. She missed their constant companionship. She even missed the dirt.
"I feel like I found a new thing," she reflected. "When you are put into a situation with people you don't know really well (like your family and best friends at home), you learn a lot about your self and how you deal with situations and how you should deal with situations.
"It's pretty eye opening," she continued. "I realize how important it is to be yourself; no matter how weird you are, it's important to be yourself. Live is too short to try to fit in constantly and fit in and please other people.
"Other people don't do a lot of things because they're worried about how others will perceive them. I try to stay completely myself and do what I am doing. It made me realize how important that is to my life and how glad I am that I am myself all the time. … In the Grand Canyon you fully embrace yourself. I used to wear a little more makeup but now I think, 'What difference will it make?'"
Hoyt plans to major in some sort of environmental science in college, and after that would like to join the Peace Corps. No matter what the future brings, she'll never forget to look up at the stars and see them through Kelly's eyes.