CISV International gives 11-year-olds chance to experience life in other cultures

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It is now a family joke, but when Ellis Herman of Mt. Lebanon was 11 years old, his mother wouldn't let him walk a few blocks by himself. Then she allowed him to go to Portugal as part of a monthlong international program.

"Our friends thought we were crazy and it did become a joke," his mother, Michelle Dreyfuss, recalled. "But this is such a great program and we felt it was very important for him."

Ms. Dreyfuss is talking about CISV International, an independent, nonprofit, international program that promotes world peace through programming for children. Formerly called "Children's International Summer Villages," the name has changed as the programs have expanded.

The first stage of the program is international villages throughout the world for 11-year-olds. Some 60 nations participate, and the children live in communal settings, such as a colleges or retreat centers.

Ellis, now 19 and a freshman in college, had such a great experience that he went on to participate in several other CISV programs. His younger, sister, Lydia, 17, also attended several programs and their 11-year-old sister, Camille, will attend a village in Mexico City this summer.

CISV was founded in 1946 in Cincinnati, noted the president of the Pittsburgh Chapter, Kristin Kovacic of Oakland.

The program was created by child psychologist Doris Allen, who wanted to promote world peace after World War II. Mrs. Allen felt that 11-years-old were the perfect age for such a program because a child this age has not yet formed prejudices but is mature enough to attend a monthlong camp away from home.

For her work, Mrs. Allen was nominated in 1979 for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Mother Teresa.

"It is actually a simple concept -- the idea of peace through friendship," Ms. Kovacic noted.

Mrs. Allen felt a four- week program is necessary for children to form actual friendships. The first village was held for eight children in 1951 in Cincinnati. This summer, children from Pittsburgh will participate in Villages in Mexico City, Italy and France.

The locations of the villages are secondary to the focus of the programming, Ms. Kovacic emphasized.

"The programs aren't about international travel, but about meeting children from other countries and cultures and learning from each other," she said.

Often, she said, lifelong friendships have resulted.

The Pittsburgh chapter was formed in 1987. Ms. Kovacic said approximately 100 families from the Pittsburgh area participate in CISV. There are 22 chapters in the U.S. With the exception of a small paid staff in England, the program is staffed by volunteers.

Ms. Kovacic and her husband, Jim Daniels, didn't discover the program until their son, Ramsey Daniels, now 19, was too old to attend a village, but he did participate in other CISV programs. Ms. Kovacic said there are different levels -- all promoting world peace -- that vary according to age.

The Pittsburgh Chapter meets the first Sunday of each month at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church with programming for both children and adults and includes activities for the village delegates to get to know each other before their international travel. Older youths often assume leadership roles.

Ms. Kovacic's and Mr. Daniels' daughter, Rosalie Daniels, 18, is a senior at Winchester Thurston School and president of the youth program. Like her older brother, Rosalie has participated in several levels, including serving as a youth counselor at a village.

"I've learned that we are more similar than we are different. I know that sounds cliche, but we all get crushes on boys, we all like shopping -- we are just from different countries," she said.

By participating in CISV, Rosalie said, she also learned to look at the United States through the eyes of those from other countries.

"I've become globally aware and see what a global impact America has on other countries," she said.

Rosalie said that her role with CISV has even helped her decide on her future career.

"I want to major in international studies and politics," she said.

Ms. Dreyfuss echoed what Rosalie said about the learning experience for the children.

"We kept asking Ellis when he came back, 'What did you learn?' 'What did you learn from the boy from Egypt?' and he said, 'I learned that we are all alike,' " she said.

It is the international outlook that Amy Raslevich and her husband, Jeff Kelly, from Ohio Township want for their children, Laura, 11, and Samuel, 7. The family lived in the Netherlands for two years and wanted to continue exposing their children to other cultures.

"We learned of the program by word of mouth and when we were overseas, we found out the children of the head of our children's school had participated in CISV," Ms. Raslevich said.

Laura will be traveling to Italy this summer and although she hasn't traveled on her own before with the exception of a weekend to Ohio for a pre-Village experience, the fifth-grader at St. Theresa of Avila is excited.

"I'm a little nervous, but I am really excited to meet different people," she said, "I think it will be a really cool experience."

The families are responsible for all costs -- approximately $3,000 for participation in the summer Village. The cost does vary with locations. Ms. Kovacic said the group also raises funds for scholarships and programs. The Pittsburgh chapter has hosted Villages in the past and is slated to sponsor one in Cranberry in the summer of 2014.

Safety is, of course, a concern for all parents, but Ms. Kovacic said participants and leaders go through rigorous background checks. She said, too, that families "take a giant leap of faith" that everyone who participates will take "good of care our children."

Ms. Kovacic said there are openings for more participants. Details:

The group will have a cookie bake at 6 to 9 p.m. March 2 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Highland Park. Details:


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:


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