Dan Vos and Brittany O’Brien learned first-hand the plight of the handicapped in the nation’s capitol as they joined 64 classmates and chaperones in a weeklong tour of U.S. government offices and memorials in Washington, D.C. – in wheelchairs.
It was the 15th time Ripon Christian High School took its government and history students to the East Coast to see first-hand through the Closeup Foundation on how government operates.
Both Vos and O’Brien were recovering from surgeries and determined they weren’t going to miss the trip. Brittany said she could walk for about an hour before she had to return to the wheelchair. Her mother, Tiffany Brouwer, went along as her personal chaperone and pushed the chair through the exhibits from the Holocaust Museum to the Capitol Rotunda and Congressman Jeff Denham’s office among others.
The two students rolled their wheelchairs up next to a statue of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was also sitting in his wheelchair – having their pictures taken with him.
The highlight of Dan’s visit was the nighttime mock congressional sessions that were held in several hotel rooms where 12 to 15 students would debate on countless issues including the prospects of a national sales tax.
Brittany has vivid memories of the Holocaust Museum and “Daniel’s Room” memorial across from the museum that portrayed wartime Germany from a child’s prospective. Daniel was living like a normal kid, they recalled, until the Nazis came and burned his family home and killed his parents.
At the Korean War Memorial, Brittany met a Korean War veteran who was also in a wheelchair sitting by the entrance appearing to be very depressed.
“I approached him and thanked him for his service and he started crying,” she said feeling the pain herself that he had held over the years in his mind since the conflict.
“One of the cool things was meeting with Congressman Jeff Denham, seeing how a local guy meeting with us could be us in the future,” they agreed.
Coordinator of the event since the mid-‘80s at Ripon Christian’s, Jerry Terpsma, said that Denham spent a good 20 minutes with his students answering their questions and commending them on the quality of their queries.
Both Dan and Brittany said the week went by all too fast from the time they got off the plane at Dulles International Airport until they were back on board headed for California. Brittany said she really liked the Library of Congress with its five million books along with students from all over the United States from Alaska to Florida.
“The mock congressional debates in the nightly workshops were mostly liberal,” Dan said. The workshops were held Sunday night, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. At the workshops they also learned the meanings of the memorials and the various quotations by historical figures. Dan located two friends from Sierra High School on the trip.
One instructor from Decatur, GA, was overheard commenting he couldn’t believe how conservative those California kids are appearing – “We thought California was liberal!”
The Ripon Christian students roomed with students from other high schools – three to a room. And Brittany learned a little sign language from the 25 hearing impaired students among the total group, with a short sentence, “This is love.”
Launching the program at Ripon Christian in 1985 was Jerry Terpsma who took just one student with him to visit the capital that year followed by more students participating for a total of some 600 students in the past 27 years.
R.C. teacher Sherman Heyboer was the point man for the trip this year having gone four times with Terpsma and who is expected to eventually take over the program.
Terpsma said they flew out on United Airlines on April 13 with the Closeup Foundation taking two jets for the trip.
He said while he was touring the office buildings he was caught in a lockdown at the Hart Building when capital police located suspicious packages on the first and third floors. Terpsma was caught on the second floor and was told by police on the floor below to go with others back into `their offices – now.
The Ripon teacher said he didn’t have an office but staff members invited him in to sit with them while they waited for an all clear notice. In between the two hour lockdown and lunch seven of the Riponites met with Ripon Christian 1996 grad and now U.S. Marine Brian Haan . Both Brian and David attended the Closeup program themselves as students.
Later that afternoon they met with Congressman Denham at 4 p.m. and spent some 20 minutes with him. The students reportedly asked whether the Republicans and Democrats actually don’t get along as portrayed in the media. He said they do get along more than 90 percent of the time.
“Our experience with Congressman Denham was wonderful,” Terpsma said. “He was very gracious with his time. He answered all their questions.”
The Ripon teacher fondly remembered a student named John Heida whose mother was bound and determined he was going to go to Washington. She even arranged a friend to go along – John Van Groningen – to ensure he didn’t change his mind. The next year following his graduation Heida returned to D.C. with family members in tow. Today he is a successful business owner and dabbles in politics with his own website, Terpsma noted.
Terpsma said they have always had a dinner dance to end up the week and this one was on a paddle boat down the Potomac with about 120 people on board, with fun for all, he concluded.