Immersive education: Family travels abroad |

Immersive education: Family travels abroad

Carla Jean Whitley

If you go

Dance Across the World

Saturday, 4 p.m. After a year of learning traditional dances from nations across the world, 11-year-old Coralie is eager to share. She’ll teach dances of Indonesia, India, Uganda and Rwanda.

Carbondale Branch Library, 320 Sopris Ave. | Free | 963-2889 |

A Year of Living as a Family Around the World

Dec. 2, 3 p.m. The Ahernskeaffs will share photos and experiences from their year of traveling in Asia, Africa and Europe. They’ll also answer questions about their time abroad. They visited: Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Uganda, India, Rwanda, Italy, Greece, Germany, France, Spain and Denmark. They arrived in India at the beginning of a financial crisis, which left them without access to money for several weeks. The people there responded by feeding and housing them as the family made its way to a friend’s property. In Germany and France, they were able to work with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Ehtiopia and Somalia. “It’s just incredible to see people accept others and sharing what they have so little of,” Aherns said.

Carbondale Branch Library, 320 Sopris Ave. | Free | 963-2889 |

Empty bookshelves

Aherns cited several empty bookcases she saw during her family’s travels: in Indonesia, in Uganda, in Rwanda. She sees sharing literacy as an effort to promote peace. Carbondale library has offered to provide books, and the family is raising money, separately, to ship the books overseas. To donate, send checks with the memo line “empty bookshelves” to:

Heidi Ahrens

1493 County Road 106

Carbondale, CO 81623

Heidi Ahrens and family didn’t have an agenda before they set out for a year-long, international trip in June 2016.

“In the beginning we didn’t have a goal,” she said. “Our goal was just to see what the world would teach us.”

Fourteen countries, 32 flights, multiple train rides and a few buses later, the family returned to their Carbondale home with a new perspective. In the coming weeks, they’ll share their insight through programs at the Carbondale Library.

Before they set out, the family hadn’t yet set which countries they would visit. But they wanted to maximize Ahrens’ husband Erik Skeaff’s sabbatical year from Colorado Rocky Mountain School, where he is chair of the English department. Daughters Coralie, 11, and Ramona, 8, were prepared to be active participants in whatever awaited.

The girls are homeschooled, and accustomed to making the most of situations. Coralie is a dancer and Ramona a violinist. The family often takes car trips around North America, including to their native Canada.

“One of the reasons we homeschool is to be able to be creative with our time,” Ahrens said.


As they traveled the world, the family immersed itself in the cultures of each nation. They sought volunteer opportunities by asking friends and people they met to identify needs.

“Through them we really learned the true impact people can have through listening to people’s stories, having coffee and listening to what they need,” Ahrens said.

Volunteering together also allowed the family time to reconnect with one another.

“The places we went to were really intense, and we needed time to decompress,” she said.

In every country, Coralie studied and taught dance, sometimes to more than 100 people at once. She learned traditional dances of each culture, and the people Coralie met asked her to share their dances when she returned home.

“She really learned dance is a universal language,” Ahrens said. “Even with a limited vocabulary, people could communicate to each other.”


The family avoided “voluntourism,” as the practice of signing up for short-term projects, sometimes at a cost, is often called. But their efforts to immerse themselves in each place resulted in both opportunities to serve and to learn.

Ahrens came away acutely aware of the West’s influence on the rest of the world, and the way consumerism affects lives.

“Here, our desires are really about getting more or accomplishing more,” she said.

That’s at the top of her mind as the holiday season begins. There’s commercial pressure to make Thanksgiving look a specific way, or to prepare for Christmas or Hanukkah with a load of presents.

Last year, the family spent Christmas in Uganda. It was a special time, yes, but not all that different from every other day in the country. People celebrated with the same food they ate daily, but in a slightly larger quantity, accompanied by a soda. They spent quality time together, but it wasn’t a dramatic change of pace, the way it often is in America. The pace of life is different in much of the world.

Ahrens and family returned home in June. Though their travels have ended, the family hopes to continue to serve the communities they visited.

The Carbondale library events are one extension of that desire, as they spread the stories they learned. But they also intend to send books overseas.

One of the Indonesian communities they visited is a prime example of a place thirsting for knowledge, Ahrens said. It’s a Muslim village that could easily become a radicalized area, she said. But exposure to other ideas prepares people to think critically when presented with radicalism.

Elsewhere, they met a medical student studying from 1940s textbooks and a village of people who relied on old, completed workbooks for reading material. As the family raises money to send books back, they hope to feed the insatiable hunger for knowledge they saw.

“People still believe the world is flat, but they have a Facebook account,” she said. “People are so hungry to know. They have so many questions.”

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