Up With People Reunion Reflections

I have stayed away from high school and college reunions because of cost and mainly time. But there was one I always wanted to go to and finally had an incredible opportunity as a speaker.

When I was 18, I spent two years traveling the world with the International Cast of Up With People. Up With People is an international singing and dancing group made up of kids from almost everywhere on the globe. The group has performed at more Super Bowl halftime shows than any other group. We received our freshman year of college credit while traveling and learning in ways no college class could teach. After 49 years, their message via music, the international language, is more relevant today than ever: humans are way more alike than different. We desperately need to recognize and celebrate that. The cast never stays in hotels, always in homes. When you know and respect someone, or lots of someones in a country, it is hard to be angry enough to go to war.

I discovered early in my years of traveling that I had a passion for doing media interviews. (That’s me in the red shirt.)

We would say, “Please open your heart, home, and refrigerators for our 120 cast members.” That experience led me to be asked to return the following year as part of the full-time advance staff team. I helped in the logistics of a CBS documentary about Up With People. The CBS producer of that documentary who encouraged me to go into TV news connected with me recently on Facebook.  I was grateful to be able to thank him.

I helped set up shows and performed at Carnegie Hall. Kids who travel today get these same real-life educational and work experiences.

The seeds that ignited a fun 18-year stint as a TV investigative reporter got planted when I had to visit the CBS producer at his network studios in New York. He invited me to watch a soap opera he was producing. “TV is so underutilized,” he told me. “You could do so much more.”

That experience led me to be asked to return the following year as part of the full-time advance staff team. Doing TV interviews in my teens with naturally inquisitive real-life reporters led me find a way to do the same thing. The group still continues to give that real-life experience. It plants seeds of knowing that much is possible if you dream it and want it badly enough.

Two years ago, I got a call from the Up With People Alumni Association president, Keith Frohreich, who asked if I would come speak at the annual reunion in Tucson, AZ. I said I would and then learned that the National Senior Games, for which I had been training, announced that my competition events would be exactly the same day. Given that I would eventually place there 7th in my age group in the 1500 meters, after qualifying at the county and state level, I felt I had made the right decision. The expensive Senior Games process was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I would not repeat.

I finally got to attend the reunion last weekend, and participated in non-stop days of singing and dancing our cast songs, and watching shows from other “eras.”

It was thrilling to reconnect with old friends, fun to smile at everyone and celebrate positive energy. Even more thrilling, watching and hearing stories of the young cast members’ adventures and travels to Israel and the upcoming Cuba trip.

I have spoken to many audiences who were not terribly interested in eating vegan (nothing with a mother or a face)…Kiwanis and Rotaries who apologized as they ate a breakfast or lunch of bacon, ham or burgers while I spoke. I expected this would be as mainstream an audience as I would ever have. At my reunion talk and while speaking with some of the 2000 attendees at my table afterwards, I was blown away by the interest.

Warmth, respect and genuine enthusiasm were everywhere. I was the only speaker invited to speak about something other than Up With People related. I didn’t know how much interest there would be in eating vegan. What I found is that the message from vegan bodybuilding to more ordinary people like me is getting out. People recognize that most US doctors don’t get a single nutrition class in medical school, and then ask the question, “Why?” Patients are forced to look elsewhere for role models and information. Many saw how former president Bill Clinton’s switch to a vegan diet saved him from a third heart surgery. With a spate of media interviews, President Clinton’s dramatic change brought the vegan message to mainstream America. As he easily lost the weight he needed to lose, he exemplified that this is not a fringe lifestyle. By making a few dietary changes, a growing chorus found the results were better than most, or any drugs.

When I traveled on the road in 1971, part of my job was rolling into the closest fast food joint and saying, “In about an hour, 120 college kids are going to roll in here on three buses

and want lunch.” We lived on fast food and soda. Many of the girls, including me, gained 25 pounds or more over a year. We just didn’t know.

(old photos courtesy Up With People Cast 71-72B Facebook page)

This year, however, I was so encouraged to meet a cast staff member whose only job was to lead workouts and nutrition education for cast members every day. How much we have learned in 42 years since I traveled! What I recognized is that the warm reunion reception reflected the innate characteristics of our group. When we traveled, those of us who could sing were placed closer to microphones. Those who could dance did that. Even as just the “back-row strength,” most of us self-selected into the group because we were extroverted, driven, energetic and valued creative movement. We were determined to find a way we could contribute. We were curious to learn in non-traditional ways. The very first female runner I had ever met was in our cast.

Over the years, my commitment of time and energy to nutrition and exercise have made me a bit of a curiosity. Doctors told me at an early age to do things differently from my family or I would end up like them. My passion for lifestyle answers instead of drugs or surgery developed from decades of seeing that the latter never worked very well, if at all.

Perhaps because some in this audience knew me as a teen-age blimp, they were hungry to hear what worked. Growing up watching my mom, aunt and both sisters get breast cancer, and much more, mandated my path would be very different.

Up With People taught compassion at an age when college-age friends didn’t consider it. The idea that we are more alike than different caused us to treat the world as our classroom, and to ask questions as the title of one of our songs did, “What color is God’s skin?” Curiosity now about how I do what I do was an extension of the openness to learn. The most amazing feedback I received was a man who came up to my table and said, “I’m 56 and had a triple bypass 6 weeks ago. I had considered going vegan before that, but seeing you has convinced me to do it right now.” Several vegan (or as the less intimidating, “plant-based” euphemistic phrase that some use) doctors have researched and written books about their research reversing heart disease.

I was also surprised at the number of people who told me they were already vegan for animal rights and/or health reasons. I always say to audiences, “Every time any vegetable makes it onto your plate, it’s a victory. I don’t judge. Blood tests never lie. Whatever works. But we all can find common ground that at the very least, we need to be eating more plants.”

Beyond my own desire to help others avoid the pain and suffering I’ve witnessed since age 5, in my immediate family and beyond, I allowed myself to be part of the reunion as a participant. I have read a few online negative stories and posts about Up With People over the years, which I have generally dismissed given the unreliability of internet stories. Some are so ridiculous that as a journalist, I wanted to just say, “Attribution please? In which cast and on what planet did you travel?” My experience was very different. I remember cold-calling the CEO of Quaker Oats when as part of the advance team, it was my job to try and help keep 3 international casts traveling, eating and sleeping throughout the world. I remember pounding the sidewalks of Chicago and New York until I couldn’t feel my toes from the cold. How else could the huge expense of travel be funded?  The first year I traveled, my parents paid the $60 a month stipend. The second year when I was asked back as staff, I got paid that same $60 back in return.

When I began speaking at this year’s reunion, a wave of gratitude swept over me and I began the talk asking, “How many of you feel like Up With People prepared you for life? How many of you feel like the lessons you learned on the road only amplified and became ten times more valuable and enhanced years later?” For many who haven’t returned for a reunion, it probably is not an exaggeration to say, most of what we needed to know about life, we learned traveling. Never taking no for an answer, facing rejection cheerfully, recognizing there’s always someone worse off, understanding we all have a right to determine what and how we learn, taking responsibility for your life-including mistakes, and tapping into boundless energy because life is way too short…all of that became crystal clear during and even more so, after our travels.

Once home, in the post-euphoria shock that hits, I suspect that like many, I downloaded several albums of songs from my era and beyond. During my two hour commute to teach cooking classes last night, I blew through them all and probably sang loud enough that those passing on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge could hear. The song titles still bring chills and the simple, yet important messages that ring true today: “What Color is God’s Skin?” (on Facebook, where the profile question asks your religion, I answered with the name of that song), “Let All the People In,” “Touch Somebody’s Heart,” “Carry It With You,” “The Further We Reach Out, The Closer We Become,” and “Don’t Keep It To Yourself.”

At the top of that landmark Skyway bridge, where people sometimes commit suicide, I thought of one of the award winners that Up With People recognized.

The awards recognize everyday heroes who are seriously changing the world. Kevin Caruso, the founder of suicide.org, received an award for his work not only in this area, but for many other websites designed for no other purpose other than to help people. No surprise, another award went to a woman who started an animal shelter in Memphis, TN. Every other award recipient’s story brought tears to our eyes.

As I listened to what others had done, it was hard not to feel like I need to get moving. There is so much need in the world, and so little time. We all need to step up to the plate and do more. It was inspiring beyond belief to see what others are doing to make a difference. It’s all any of us can ever do.