Returnee Spotlight on: Sam Harshbarger and Katie Eder

AFSers in Russia with Sam on his Project: Change trip    

October 23, 2015 - In 2014, AFS awarded the Project: Change Grand Prize and the Vision in Action Award to two outstanding students, Sam and Katie. Keep reading to learn more about their experiences with AFS and their plans for the future. Also, check out this year’s Project: Change contest to submit your own idea for a volunteer project abroad!

Sam on his Project: Change trip in Russia

As the winner of the 2014 Project: Change contest, Sam spent two weeks in Central Russia with four other participants where they learned about Udmurt history, food, language, music, and crafts from the experts themselves. Sam’s idea was to study underrepresented people in Russia in order to preserve and share their culture with the world. They documented their findings on a website dedicated to sharing and preserving Udmurt traditions, which they created and published themselves.

Katie on her trip in Colombia

Katie developed a volunteer project called Kids Tales, a writing workshop for children. By encouraging creativity and boosting students’ reading and writing skills, Katie’s goal is to give every kid the gift of storytelling. She began Kids Tales in Milwaukee, then continued her volunteer work in Chicago and Washington DC. After winning the 2014 AFS Vision in Action Award, Katie brought her project to Colombia. At the end of the program, Kids Tales published a book of short stories written by Katie’s students in Colombia called The Land of Enthusiasm.


How long have you been involved with AFS?

Sam – Since February, I guess, when AFS-USA President Jorge Castro took to the stage after my middle school’s spelling bee and announced the selection of my project (as the winner of Project: Change).

Katie – AFS has been a part of my and my family’s life ever since I was young. We hosted a student from Tunisia last year. One of my older sisters traveled to Egypt with AFS and my other older sister was president of our school’s AFS club. When I saw AFS was offering a contest called Project: Change that allowed students within the US to submit project proposals for service projects abroad, I knew I wanted to submit Kids Tales Around the World as an idea.  I traveled with AFS over the summer for two weeks on their Global Prep trip to Colombia.

AFSers teach a writing workshop in Colombia


What is your favorite AFS memory?

Sam—My favorite AFS memory was our arrival in Moscow. We went straight from Sheremetyevo International Airport to Saint Basil’s Cathedral next to the Kremlin. It’s quite a change to go from Times Square to Red Square. It feels like the center of an alternate world.

Katie—The book of the Colombia stories is called, The Land of Enthusiasm. The reason this name came about is because throughout the entire trip whenever someone was not having fun, we would all shout, “Have some enthusiasm!” This got picked up during the class, and all of the students from the school started yelling, “Have some enthusiasm!” When the time came to pick the title of the book, they chose The Land of Enthusiasm because it represented our trip’s motto.

AFSers learn about Udmurt culture in Russia


How did you come up with your idea for AFS Project: Change?

Sam – I would say I was about twelve when I first became interested in saving and preserving the diverse indigenous cultures of the world. Looking at the images captured by British photographer Jimmy Nelson were an inspiration with their bright colors and deeply philosophical sayings. I’ve always considered myself a Humanities-oriented sort of person, so the literature and religion of native minorities fascinated me. The Russian aspect of the project came from the fact that I had begun taking Russian lessons in November, a month before I applied for the scholarship. These factors only materialized into the project the night I wrote the essay (which happened to be the night it was due).

Katie – I founded Kids Tales (in the United States) in November of 2013. I knew right away when I saw AFS Project: Change that it would be a great project for Kids Tales. Kids Tales teaches kids the fundamentals of writing in order to better develop kids’ communication, creative, and literacy skills. Our website is kidstales.org. During a Kids Tales workshop, students brainstorm, write, and edit/revise a short story. They learn how to begin a story, what the body of the story needs, and how to close it. At the end of the week, all the stories from each individual workshop are compiled and self-published in an anthology on Amazon.com.

An AFSer helps a Colombian student with her writing


What would your advice be to future AFSers and Project Change submitters?

Sam – A key element to any project is passion: the topic you choose to address needs to be close to your heart. Writing with motivation improves not only the quality of the work, but also makes the essay more sincere, more thoughtful, and easier to write.

Katie – Traveling the globe is an amazing experience that most teenagers, and most adults even, don’t get to experience. Enjoy every minute of it. For people who are submitting to Project: Change, my advice would be to find a topic or an idea that most people don’t think about. There are a lot of problems in our world that no one has addressed yet. Be the first person to combat the problem. Be the leader. And remember, “Have some enthusiasm!”

AFSers enjoy an Udmurt meal in Russia


Do you plan on expanding your project?

Sam— I do hope to continue working on the project in the future, but at the current moment, I am applying for a NSLI-Y scholarship to study Russian in Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, or the Russian Federation this upcoming summer and am engaged with the Russian and general Eastern Orthodox academic communities around Princeton.

Katie— Kids Tales teaches many workshops throughout the United States. This past summer we taught in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington DC. Kids Tales not only plans to continue to spread globally in the summer of 2016, but we also plan to teach in many more cities throughout the US.


Where do you want to travel to next?

Sam—I would really love to travel to Russia again. I really miss Moscow and the Udmurt countryside especially. I hope to be able to go back to Russia or a Russian-speaking country over the summer and master as much of the Russian language as I can.

Katie— For Kids Tales, I would love to see us hold a workshop in an African nation, in a region within the country where writing is not often taught. But personally, I have always wanted to go to Antarctica.

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Feeling inspired by Sam’s and Katie’s projects? Visit the Project: Change blog to find out how you could make an impact. Tell us your ideas by Dec. 1st for the chance to win a full scholarship to volunteer abroad!