Vail Valley teens learn lessons in a faraway world |

Vail Valley teens learn lessons in a faraway world

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyElle Tietbohl and Rachel Feldman said they wanted to see some of the world before they started college, so they went to Uganda.

EAGLE COUNTY ” As their friends scattered across the United States, filling dorm rooms for their first year of college, Rachel Feldman and Elle Tietbohl were on a plane to Africa.

Feldman had just graduated from Battle Mountain High School, and Tietbohl from Vail Mountain School. They had decided that college could wait a while, at least until they’d seen more of the world. After all, they’ll never get this time of their life back, Tietbohl said.

They saved some money, signed up with the Global Volunteer Network and found themselves in Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world.

They spent most of their time teaching people about AIDS and helping out in a school house. They saw poverty they couldn’t imagine, met people dying of malnutrition, lived on a diet of unripe mashed bananas, and ran away from what they said was a creepy religious zealot running an AIDS education group.

Feldman has already come home, but Tietbohl will be there until the end of January. Feldman says she’s changed, but the experience hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

“I wanted to go as far as I could to discover the world,” Feldman said. “I hoped it would set me on the track I want to go on in life, help me realize the person I want to be.”

Tietbohl says visiting Uganda is kind of like “stepping into a National Geographic magazine.”

Time doesn’t really exist in Uganda. Things that take two days to do in the United States take two weeks there. It’s always hot, and the dirt is red. The southern part of the country is very green.

In the villages, people live in mud huts or small cement compounds. There are more churches than schools. Electricity doesn’t exist in most places. The roads are littered with plastic. Goats roam the street, and you see lots of naked children running around, Tietbohl said.

It’s obvious on your first walk through a Ugandan village that people are suffering. A Ugandan’s diet is mostly carbohydrates. Boiled flower is a typical dish. Most Ugandan’s eat just to get full and don’t pay much attention to taste and nutrition, Feldman said.

But still, you can find bright smiles and warm hearts, Tietbohl said.

“They all have rhythm; even at the age of two, they can still shake it like Beyonce,” Tietbohl said.

Their trip didn’t start out so wonderful. Feldman and Tietbohl had been living in Uganda for a month when they decided to run away from their home.

They have a hard time describing why they did it ” the situation was too strange, too uncomfortable, Feldman said. Basically, they didn’t trust the volunteer group they were staying with.

The group was really just one man with a strange vision, Feldman said.

They were supposed to educate Ugandans about AIDS, but also tell them that birth control and condoms were evil. Instead, they prayed. He taught them that prayer would cure AIDS, and that’s how they should fight the epidemic.

While there’s nothing wrong with prayer, the approach didn’t make much sense to Feldman and Tietbohl, but they had no choice but to quietly watch when they’d meet with large groups of Ugandans. They felt like they were wasting their time and not teaching the Ugandans the practical things they needed to know.

Every day was a struggle, and they never felt comfortable with their assignment or the director of the group, who on a personal level, was creepy, Feldman said. So, they literally ran away. They packed their bags, left their house and found a guest house with the Global Volunteer Network so they could find another assignment.

It was hard to find some sort of positive lesson out of the whole ordeal, other than that the world is tough, and you have to be careful who you trust, Feldman said.

“It was also frustrating because we weren’t doing what we came to do, but it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience regardless,” Tietbohl said.

At their second assignment, they felt much more helpful. They worked with a group called Yofafo, which operated a children’s school and taught women working skills and how to handle their money. Getting to the school house required a two-hour mini-bus ride through the jungle. They’d have a four-hour school day, then make the trip back.

“Our main purpose was to increase the use of creativity, reason and logic in the classroom,” Feldman said.

The kids are all taught in English. Feldman and Tietbohl helped with many of the lessons, and helped the teachers think of more creative ways to teach. Otherwise, the education is very basic.

“It was fun trying to teach them how to write a story, which they’ve never done,” Feldman said.

The kids have it tough there. The school is very strict, and the kids are always in fear of being beaten by the headmaster of the school, Feldman said.

“We saw the headmaster round up kids and beat them because they were talking in class,” Feldman said.

Just days after returning, Feldman said she already feels a little older, a little wiser, a little more patient, and more appreciative of what she has.

“It’s made me thankful for everything I have,” Feldman said. “I won’t waste food anymore, I won’t waste water.”

Feldman says will attend college, and hopes to do more volunteer work in developing countries.

Tietbohl is still in Uganda. School is over, and she’s started on a pile of paperwork, figuring out budgets and writing reports. She said she won’t know exactly how the experience will affect her life until she returns to the United States.

“Life in Africa is tough; people are suffering, people around me are literally dying, and this country’s ” this continent’s ” problems are so overwhelming. Its hard to wrap your head around,” Tietbohl said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

Support Local Journalism